Snarled net could lead to a web of nightmares

With nations ever more reliant on the World Wide Web, particularly in the West, there are increasingly serious warnings over the internet's vulnerability to attack.

The first US news reports show large fuel refinery fires and explosions in Philadelphia and Houston together with lethal clouds of chlorine gas being released from chemical plants in New Jersey and Delaware. Air traffic controllers across major airports begin to panic as they try to identify thousands of planes manually after a total systems collapse at the Federal Aviation Administration National Air Traffic Control Centre in Virginia. Two 747 passenger jets crash in mid-air and train wrecks start to be reported on the ground. The entire eastern seaboard of the US is plunged into darkness. New York's financial computer centres and their back-up locations go down, making it impossible to identify who owns what. The secretary of the Treasury says the entire financial system will dissolve by morning.

In the days that follow, cities run out of food because of the train-system failures and the jumbling of data at trucking and distribution centres. Nuclear power plants go into secure lockdown and many conventional plants' generators are permanently damaged. Unable even to draw cash from ATM machines, many Americans start to loot stores under cover of the blackout. Police and emergency services are quickly overwhelmed.

Despite the fact that no one is sure of the precise origin of the attack, political pressure to strike back at the aggressor mounts and the president orders a counter attack on the states thought most likely to be responsible, thereby ensuring that the conflict goes global. These events are not the work of a Hollywood screenwriter or the opening sequence of the latest Armageddon-style computer game but one of a series of increasingly serious warnings from highly accredited senior sources close to the US defence establishment who believe there is a rising risk of a global conflict where weaknesses in internet defences are exploited - not only for military advantage but also to cripple vital services and utilities.

The former CIA director and US general Michael Hayden told the global technical security conference Black Hat 2010 that the internet is now the "fifth military domain" with air, land, sea and space being the other four. He warned that cyberspace has no real security systems, suggesting that leading nations should band together to outlaw online warfare for fear that it could cause immense damage. According to the US-based consultants Independent Security Evaluators, it would take North Korea only two years and US$100 million (Dh367.3m) to assemble an unstoppable cyber army of 1,000 hackers targeting smart power grids, banks, communications and other key pillars of US infrastructure.

A survey conducted by the security consultancy Sophos reports an increasing public awareness of the growing danger of cyber war. The worldwide survey of more than 1,000 computer users revealed that 77 per cent said there needed to be an international agreement about what types of cyber warfare were acceptable. When asked if it would be acceptable for a country to launch a cyber attack designed to disrupt another state's communications or financial system, 49 per cent said "yes but only in wartime". Only 7 per cent gave an unequivocal yes and 44 per cent said no.

According to Cyber War, a book written by Richard Clarke, the former US national co-ordinator for security, infrastructure protection and counter terrorism, the grim scenario of the effects of a cyber attack on the US detailed above could begin to take place within 15 minutes of an attack by one of several nation states. North Korea is seen as one potential aggressor in a cyber war. The country selects elite students at the elementary-school level to be groomed as future hackers. After being trained in computer programming and hardware in middle and high school, they automatically enrol at the Command Automation University in Pyongyang where they learn how to hack into enemy network systems.

China is also believed to have cyber warfare units housed at a naval base on Hainan Island. The Pentagon believes the Third Technical Department of the People's Liberation Army and the Lingshui Signals Intelligence Facility units on Hainan Island have developed cyber weapons that have never been seen before and that no defences yet designed can stop. "Other nations such as South Korea or Estonia may have greater consumer access to broadband. Others such as the United Arab Emirates may have more internet capable mobile devices per capita," says Mr Clarke. "But few nations have used computer networks as extensively [as the US] to control electric power, pipelines, airlines, railroads, distribution of consumer goods, banking and contractor support of the military ? The US military is no more capable of operating without the internet than would be."

But cyber war is not only a threat to the US. During the Cold War, there was always the fear that any nuclear conflict would soon spread beyond the two superpowers involved. However, if the US did suffer a sustained and highly destructive cyber attack, the president, as commander in chief, would be under great pressure to order an instant reprisal. His first task would be to identify the state that had launched the attack. Unlike a missile attack, a cyber attack might not necessarily be launched from abroad.

According to Mr Hayden, it is not always possible to determine who is carrying out online attacks. Political pressure for the US president to respond with a cyber attack on states perceived as the most likely aggressors could mean launching a retaliatory cyber attack on a country thought to be antagonistic to the US or to be harbouring those responsible for the attack. But cyber attacks and reprisals do not respect national boundaries in a world where states depend on one another for vital services and where internet-run financial services extends across borders.

With Gulf countries currently orchestrating a shared power grid, there would be a strong likelihood of a cyber conflict quickly spreading across the entire region with devastating social and economic results.