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The new Cuban Crisis in Cyberspace

21 February 2013

Back in the 1960s, the world stood on the brink of its first ever nuclear war between superpowers.

For those who aren't aware of what the Cuban Missile Crisis was, a short history lesson...

In 1962, the Russians decided that they would place nuclear-armed missiles within a few hundred miles of the US mainland, in Cuba. The Russians found an eager ally in the form of Fidel Castro, who was strongly concerned that the USA might invade his island nation, so Cuba opened its doors to the Russians and their nukes.

Clearly, the positioning of such weapons right on the USA's doorstep was an unacceptable situation for the president of the day, John F Kennedy, and in October of that year it was demanded that Russia remove the weapons or face the consequences.

After some posturing on both sides and an agreement that, if the missiles were withdrawn by Russia, the USA would not invade Cuba, the situation was eventually resolved without recourse to military might.

However, for a few weeks, the entire world was on tenter-hooks, poised on the verge of a huge nuclear war that would have had devastating effects for every man, woman and child left on the face of the planet.

Well if reports out of the USA this week are anything to go by, it appears that claims of persistent cyber-attacks against US targets by China's military are creating a similar climate of political tension -- and there are some who believe it could become the catalyst for real-world retaliation.

Apparently, Unit 61398 of the Chinese PLA is responsible for hacking numerous systems and collecting terabytes of valuable industrial and other secrets from US computer systems. The Americans can only speculate as to exactly what this data is or will be used for -- but they're clearly mighty pissed off about it.

For their part, the Chinese claim to be innocent -- just a victim of other hackers who must have compromised the China-based computers which have then been used to hack US-based computers. Why do I sense that a beer advertisement ought to be placed here?

Of course, although they will not admit it, it is widely believed that just as the Chinese are targeting US industrial, military and government systems, so the USA's own force of cyberhackers are making every effort to break through the defenses of key systems in China.

Some believe that this cyberwar has the potential to reach such a level that the retaliations take a more physical manifestation -- initially in the form of sanctions but potentially by way of military exchanges involving real bombs and real blood.

One thing is for sure, although China's military is perceived to be at least a decade behind the USA's, they will almost certainly compensate for quality with quantity -- should a full-scale war actually erupt. It's also worth noting that China is a nuclear power with warheads and delivery vehicles quite capable of striking at the US mainland if it chose to.

Another group of people believe that the USA may be deliberately escalating this cyberwar with a view to creating a real conflict -- seeing the option of annexing China in battle as a more palatable option to repaying the huge level of debt currently owed that country by America.

Whatever the true motives, strategies and outcomes, there is a very real risk that the rest of the world could be caught up in the crossfire (real or virtual) if silly politicians are allowed to play with technologies and weapons they really don't understand.

Should we (the rest of the world) be worried yet?

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