It seems like every week we are treated to new juicy (and often scary) revelations by infamous NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden on how the intelligence establishment works in cyberspace. His latest leak though is possibly the most alarming to date. While others in the past pointed out the sheer contempt which the NSA had towards privacy and citizens rights, his latest information suggests that the organisation was working on a program which could accidentally start a war.
Dubbed ‘MonsterMind’, this program was the United States’ attempt to developed an automated deterrent to so-called cyber attacks. The project consisted of distributed software which would be able to detect incoming cyberattacks against critical US infrastructure, and then work to rapidly block the attack. Unfortunately it did not just stop there. The software was also programmed to identify the origin of the attackers and then launch retaliatory cyber attacks back at them.
It is remarkably easy for a hacker to disguise their location.
Herein lies the problem. While retaliation against hackers seems like a good idea in principle, in reality, it is all but impossible to effectively deter cyber attacks in this way. This is because it is remarkably easy for a hacker (and effectively best practice) to disguise their location through the use of proxies and make it seem like their attack is coming from somewhere complete different to their actual location.
The danger here is that due to MonsterMind automatically targeting and retaliating against these attacks, it could actually be hitting back at the wrong party. In addition to this, it would be very easy for such systems to accidentally start a cascade of automated cyber attacks and retaliations that could cause real physical damage and perhaps even lead to a war, based on a single relatively minor action, that could be from anywhere on Earth.
While you would think that the NSA wouldn’t be careless enough to overlook such an obvious problem, their operational history doesn’t make us so sure. In the same interview where he revealed MonsterMind, Snowden also explained that back in 2012, the NSA managed to temporarily disconnect Syria from the internet. While this might seem intentional, it actually wasn't. During an attempt to tap Syrian telecoms a NSA hacker accidentally bricked a key router in the Syrian network causing a country-wide internet blackout.
Clearly, the NSA is not exactly the most careful of organisations. We can only hope that these most recent revelations can end the MonsterMind program or any similar cyberwarfare bots for good.
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