DURING the Cold War era, a Soviet tank once entered Austria at night by mistake. Nobody took any notice of it until it was discovered by a traffic police next morning since it was parked on the wrong side of the road. Soon a joke went viral in Austria. It said nobody would know if the Soviet Union attacked Austria unless they parked their tanks on the wrong side of the road!
Like the Austrians, we may not also perceive if and when the World War III (WWIII) starts. In all probability, WWIII will be fought without firing a shot. Silence will be the hallmark of the war. Nobody will know who made the first attack.
All the weapons of an enemy country may be incapacitated by hacking its computer systems. Computers in government offices, financial markets and utilities may collapse completely affecting financial transactions, communication systems and supply of electricity, water and food.
Are we seeing some early symptoms of a cyber war? Sony Pictures Entertainment was about to release a comedy, The Interview, which involved an attempted assassination of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. It angered the regime in Pyongyang. Recently, a cyber attack rendered thousands of Sony's computers inoperable. US movie theatres decided not to show the film after hackers made threats against cinemas and audiences. An investigation by the FBI revealed North Korea was involved in the hacking. North Korea denies the allegations and requested a joint probe.
President Barack Obama vowed to respond against North Korea “in a place and time and manner that we choose.” North Korea has issued a threat to attack US landmarks after claiming that the US government had been behind the controversial movie. A statement from the state news agency said: “Our target is all the citadels of the US imperialists.”
Experts say Obama's options include cyber retaliation. North Korea is already off the internet. Washington is silent about it. Has a cyber war already started? Will it culminate in WWIII? Nobody knows the answer but a few things are certain. The malwares affecting computers in one country may quickly spread to other countries, not necessarily involved in any conflict, thus escalating the war. Every country will, of course, try to protect its computers from cyber attacks by appropriate security systems. If they fail to do so, the victims of a cyber war will be mostly civilians, as stated earlier. The aftermath will be worse than a chemical warfare which affects only a limited area covered by the attack whereas a cyber attack may spread to a very large area beyond borders.
The world cannot and should not ignore cyber attacks any more. It may get to a point of no return unless action is taken now. Let us ban cyber warfare like chemical warfare is banned by Chemical Weapons Convention.
The writer is a former chief engineer of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission.