Uncertain Future – Part XII – National Defense

As mentioned before, the vast majority of contractors trace their roots to service with the US military, or the militaries where their company operates. The cream rises to the top, so the best contracts are awarded to those with proven success and training, namely to services like the Navy SEALs, Army Delta Forces, Rangers, or the United States Marine Corps infantry, particularly any of these with experience in combat. Less prestige and pay may be warranted to someone of non-combat military jobs, police officers, and security specialists, and the lowest level bids will likely go to local militia and hired gunman. It must always be remembered, though, that the demand will always come for those elite operators, the Special Forces team members of the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

Like any industry built on recruiting the best of a different industry, the first, which expends all the resources to make those operators so valuable, suffers the long term effects of the brain drain. It will be the US military that foots the bill, paying for years, sometimes decades, of training into making civilians into the most lethal warriors on the planet. During their times in, they will amount to the tip of the spear, deploying with units like the SEALs, Marine Raiders, and Army Rangers, to conduct missions in the service of the United States. They will face dangers no one else in the world could handle, able to push through with only the value of the extensive training hours they have logged, the teams they learned to be a part of, and the massive logistical behemoth at their back. As a friend of mine would say, “They are the Dudes of Dudes.”

At some point though, many just get done with all that. Perhaps they just want to do something else with their life. Underwater basic weaving, maybe. Or crochet. These dudes have enough man cards racked up from 12 years in the SEALs to become professional crochet artists if they want. Many want to retire to their families, while some see the reality that, if they take the PMC jobs, they will experience a better lifestyle with far better pay than the military could ever provide, easier missions, and less chance of death or maiming. It needs to be understood that Benghazi was a freak event. From 2009 to 2012 only 5 members of the Global Response Staff were killed [70]. During the same time 1,808 Americans troops lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan .[71] This includes events like Operation Red Wings, the largest single loss to the US Navy SEALs in its history, when four SEALs on advanced recon were attacked, killing three and a quick reaction force helicopter sent to in to rescue them id was shot down with a rocket propelled grenade, killing all eight Navy SEALs and all eight U.S. Army Special Operations aviators on board. [72]Quite frankly, I wouldn’t blame anyone for hanging up the uniform at that point, and it is a wonder why so many of them still don’t. But many do, for all the reasons listed before.

Now it’s important to think about what this means to the military as a whole. The military’s job, be it Marines, Army, Navy, or Air Force, are to be the strong arm of American diplomacy and the backbone of defense in NATO. Over the last fifty years, however, we have seen the military reduce in strength, rather drastically, to the point that today we have fewer active duty military than we did prior to the start of World War II. [73]

Moreover, the prevailing strategy over the last thirty years has been to obliterate the enemy using advanced weaponry and devastatingly superior technology. The problem we’ve seen, however, is that the military is proving more and more often to be under equipped to handle the manpower requirements necessary to successfully pacify an occupied territory such as Iraq or Afghanistan, let alone both. Regardless of the number of drones we have in the air, without boots on the ground, we simply don’t have enough men to keep the peace. This is particularly true when we consider expending and $80,000 missile on a $200,000 bombing run to kill two insurgents in a tent a sustainable wartime strategy.  [74]

Instead, the United States has centered its focus on Special Warfare, creating units whose primary focus is in black ops intervention and direct action operations. These forces are truly lethal, the creme of the crop in every sense of the word. They are, as they say, the point of the spear. The problem is, they are only one small point, and not capable of being everywhere at once. For an example, the SEALs are who everyone talks about. For as much as they are mentioned the US Navy SEAL community only has about 2,500 active duty members [75]. There is a reason they are special. Of the three hundred million Americans, almost none of them have what it takes, including the physical desire just to do it, that is required to be a part of these elite teams. This is also why we can’t just train to be like them [76]. Of those who try, more than 80% will fail, and according to Marcus Luttrell, the subject of the book Lone Survivor, more candidates die in training than do active duty SEALs in combat. [77]It takes a very special person to even consider joining up with the SEALs, but the problem is, there just simply don’t seem to be enough special people to accomplish the missions which are placed on the nation’s special warfare community. There is a real need for a larger presence on the ground, which given the direction of the American military back towards an isolationist point, doesn’t exist in the numbers needed either.

Considering this, if the military is getting smaller and smaller, focusing more of its efforts into the actions of very small, very elite units, and those units are the primary source for private military contractors, it lends one to really consider the threat the PMCs have on the standing military. For the last 7o years, the US military has been the go-to force for international peacekeeping and creating security, protecting international sea lanes, and ensuring that diplomatic efforts stay open. In that time, and despite the constant “If it Bleeds, It Leads” sensationalist news to the contrary, the world has become a pretty awesome place. There are fewer violent deaths, fewer deaths from disease, fewer wars, and increased wealth across the globe. Look at this graph. It’s a nice graph. Do yourself a solid and realize that Coca-cola and the Kardashians didn’t cause this. Globalization did, and globalization doesn’t happen without someone ensuring everyone playing the game is playing by a minimum acceptable set of behaviors.

That job of “globo-cop”, in the words of Ian Morris in his book War – What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, has traditionally fallen on the Americans. Now considering that the world’s current state of relative peace is reliant on a strong force to serve as its backbone [78], what happens when the backbone of world order is weakened, or removed altogether?

When that backbone, in this case the US military, is suffering from attrition both in the form of budgetary cutbacks in a belief that it can get by with replacing thinking soldiers with more advanced, but ultimately fewer remote controlled or autonomous systems [79], as it continues to pull back it’s overseas holdings [80] and is constantly being cannibalized by the United States’ own State Department, CIA, and numerous multinational corporations to provide for their own security needs, where does that put the rest of the world?

Focusing on the PMCs, when the highest order performers, in this case the Special Forces operators, no longer provide the kind of support often needed of people with their skillsets, but instead act as a force of protection for VIPs, they are not fulfilling their true potential or carrying the burden the world needs of them. They babysit high value targets rather than killing terrorists and dethroning evil regimes. Instead of getting things done and making peace, they simply serve as a force ensuring peace for those they work for. I want to be clear, I have nothing but respect for these men, and everyone should feel free to enjoy life and pursue happiness, but one has to ask if this path the United States is setting itself on will make for a very, very ugly world twenty years down the line when the best of the best simply aren’t where the world needs them anymore.

Quite frankly, this story is already starting to play itself out. Military .com posted a review of the United States Army where an industry think tank warned the service was “weak” and incapable of performing the necessary role of sustained conflict in two theaters.  [81]Add to this a recent Gallop Poll asking asking if Americans still had faith in their military. The results weren’t good. [82]

The answer is increasingly ‘no,’ according to a new Gallup poll. Last year the number of Americans who thought they were protected by the world’s strongest military was 59 percent, but this year that number has dropped to 49 percent – the lowest figure in the 23 years Gallup has recorded the trend.

While polls are only polls, it does point to a very disturbing trend. People are losing respect for the United States military, and when the world’s most important enforcer of global security is no longer respected, one has to wonder what the next twenty years are going to look like. Quite frankly, the United States will be fine. We won’t see any existential threats to our way of life any time soon, but the rest of the world may not be so lucky without us. The Middle East, as I have made abundantly clear, is only getting worse as the United States continues to remove itself from the region. Their conflicts are spreading through North Africa and now into Europe and India. Russia is starting to pick up the slack, for better or worse, but their track record for making the world a better place within their shadow is abysmal at best. Perhaps China? Since they have shown little ever to provide security to any foreign counterparts in spite of their massive military, I don’t see security happening outside of the private sites they lease from host countries. Also considering their increasing internal struggles to balance unnatural growth expectations with a workforce growing more demanding every year, and older at the same rate, I doubt they will ever be able to truly challenge American hegemony in the next century. So if no one is capable of ensuring the kind of peace we have grown to expect up to today, what can we expect of tomorrow?

I’m not one to usually give into pessimistic fears, but if you want to start getting scared, I wouldn’t blame you. The next twenty years are going to get a lot more volatile, and in many places very dangerous. Those who will fare the best will be those who can accept the danger and create a plan to mitigate it.

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Uncertain Future – Part XI – High Value Protection

High Value Body Guards and Military Contractors

Executive security is the industry of protection for VIP and High Value Individuals. While this includes those who specialize in shuttling primped up primadonna starlets like Justin Beiber from show to show, unharassed by throngs of fans, there is a much deeper need for experienced, battle ready security teams.

Due to the attention grabbing nature of these massive catastrophes, many other acts of overt criminal activities have grown in practice, but go relatively unnoticed by those not engaged in foreign policy news. First among these is the threat of kidnapping. While assassination or general acts of terror surely rank high on the list, kidnapping has a special role to play in the story of international chaos that exists today and which will continue in the future.

To understand why this is, one needs to understand how criminal empires and murder crazed caliphates primarily get funding. According to documents discovered following a raid of a prominent ISIS leader [56], the organization is funded massively through the use of kidnapping with the purpose of ransom. CNN and Business Insider investigate further to show the staggering amounts of money generated by these tactics [57] and the rationale for why the act of kidnapping is really such a good idea for such criminal and terrorist organizations. [58]

The kidnapping of Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa rattled the international press for this reason. This time, however, it wasn’t for the sheer barbarity that their fellow news agents were experiencing, (those attempting to report the news in the region are a favorite flavor of victim for the Islamic State, along with female humanitarian aid workers  [59]) but the magnitude of the ransom being demanded. The Islamic State demanded of the government of Japan $200 million for their safe return. Like so many others, this negotiation broke down and both were eventually beheaded in brutal fashion.

ISIS’ rationale seems similar to other terror groups: Kidnappings help raise money and, if ransoms aren’t paid, make a point, such as the groups are not to be messed with and even civilians are in danger.

$200 million is sizable demand and one which could drastically help fund the operations of the terrorist organization, which is currently already expanding its reach internationally as its borders shrink locally. While these two did not turn a profit, others did. The French have denied that they have paid ransoms [60], but according to a New York Times Report [61]they succeeded in buying back the freedom of kidnapped Frenchman from the Islamic State from ISIS. A second group working for a french nuclear firm were also freed by an al Qaeda affiliate in return for money. In perhaps the greatest coup for the terrorist state, 49 captives of Turkish origin were returned, seemingly for no reason at all to Ankara. Those following the report, myself among them, strongly suspect a major payoff for their safe and uneventful return [62]. There are other reports of three hundred Christians being charged more than $30 million for their release. One victim gave in an interview with New York Magazine that his captors forced him to call his family and a friend while he was being tortured, in hopes that his anguished screams would move them to pay the ransom money. [63] [64]

“We were blindfolded and chained, and every day they would torture us,” he said. “They would come in, one at a time, and electrocute us or beat us with anything they could find.”

“But they didn’t kill me because they wanted to ransom me. One time, they made me speak to my family on the phone as they were electrocuting me. Then, they made me call a friend, who told them he would pay.”

However, the practice of criminal kidnapping for profit is not limited to the ISIS threat. Moving to the Gulf of Aden and Somalia in one last example, one only has to recount the story of Captain Phillips.  [65]There, Somali pirates attempted to take an American vessel hostage along with its crew. This practice has become common in the narrow straits between Iran and the Horn of Africa. Massive ships with massive shipments worth billions are capable of attracting huge payouts to the pirates and the warlords who control them from the mostly European companies who control them. In the case of Phillips, though, the problem wasn’t solved by a financial transaction so much so as the extremely potent delivery of precision fire from the muzzle of US Navy SEAL Snipers.

Regardless of the success of the Phillips case, piracy and kidnapping for ransom are not going away. In fact, seeing the financial and propaganda potential for such violations, the value of making such attacks has prompted many, many more. This, perhaps, has only been exacerbated by the American shift in policy that some would say encourages the practice by providing a means for private individuals to pay the ransoms of their friends and families, thus encouraging more like kind kidnappings.

Having said all of this, it is no longer safe for most Westerners to travel to the Middle East, and the growing troubles of the region are only spreading more and more throughout the Islamic world, as millions sympathetic to the ideals of the Al Qaeda and the Islamic State begin to copy their tactics and methods. Still, people still have business to do, so Westerners are still going to go there. This leads to the need for private military contractors (PMCs).

Mention of the practice of PMCs is one that elicits fear and suspicion in most people unfamiliar with how they are actually used. Often, they can’t be mentioned without imaginations of secret mercenary black helicopter events and Orwellian fears of off the books private armies. In all honesty, very few such companies are used for anything other than bodyguards for individuals of extremely high value in the region, rather than elite soldiers willing to kill for the highest dollar. The US State department often contracts with these companies to provide a greater level of security than they can do otherwise with the military for their foreign dignitaries and ambassadors, and the CIA for their foreign case officers. This is outlined well in the opening chapters of the new book 13 Hours – The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi. The book begins by detailing the lives of the contractors involved, both professional and personal. All of those in the book possessed varied military experience, some US Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and Marines. They may have in their experience sets Master’s Degrees in Criminal Justice, stints as the local police chief, or run warrants as bail bondsmen, and PIs stateside. Other PMCs may come from more diverse backgrounds; internationals with the French Foreign Legion, British SAS, and any number of other places and backgrounds. When I was deployed to Iraq, one team which frequented our Entry Control Point in Al Anbar Province had team members that came from as far off as South Africa, Romania, and Singapore, lead by an English Special Air Service soldier.

For the CIA and State Department, the go to is the Global Response Staff, an open secret of an organization created after the attacks on September 11th, 2001. The GRS gathers together teams of the best and most experienced operators from within the United States military with the knowledge and experience to be able to covertly guard its most valuable assets anywhere on the globe. What distinguishes these individuals from the common military they appear to be is the benefits package. Some PMCs today take in over $150,000 annually for their work overseas, on average, around three to five times what they could have expected in any given military career doing much harder work. Why they are useful is their flexibility and potency. Small teams deployed to a city can easily intertwine with the area, and adapt to cover any target that needs their level of protection. They can do this, however, without the massive overhead of the slow moving US military and sticking out like a sore thumb in places where Americans already have a hard enough time blending in. While these men (and women) and their skills don’t come cheap, they come without the prohibitive costs of deploying an entire unit of Marines or Army soldiers, which could rank in the millions, assuming an entire base doesn’t need to built for the task.

As Benghazi itself showed, the need for these individuals does still exist, and the threat of kidnapping, assassination, extortion, and any number of nefarious concerns may confront high value individuals at any time. This is why operators, such as those working with the Global Response Staff or other private military contractors will be in extremely high demand by foreign dignitaries of all nations, local government leaders, spies, journalists, and corporate executives who travel abroad, all doing business in places where business has to be done. These are the types of people who don’t want to be recorded in orange jumpsuits, a propaganda tool for murder fiends across the world. What this also means is that over the next twenty years, PMC operators of every brand and color will be in such high demand that they pop up literally everywhere important people can be seen in places where bad things often happen. What’s more, many will be more than the sum of high paid former Special Forces operators. They will be homegrown and specialized to their tasks through courses like the various Executive Protection [66] [67] courses that exist and under instruction by companies such as the American security services training company Academi [68]or the European Security Academy [69]. Both of these firms provide, alongside their training, mission support in the form of human resources, planning, and operational support. Remember that these people aren’t accountants, get creative and realize that that means  more or less exactly what you think it does.

The big change we will see as a result of this will be rather undemocratic shift in politics across the world. As the means of terrorism continues to grow, the need for higher and higher priced body guards to handle the threat will make some very rich people very safe, while leaving many others with little more than a prayer. In the end, expect to never see another photo again of any person of worth in a critical conflict area of the world without a dedicated staff of very skilled warfighters at their sides and at the ready.

Of course, this causes us to ask a very important question, where are all these extremely well paid and well trained operators going to come from?

Uncertain Future – Part X -Private Security Companies

Beyond the need for standard training, which will introduce a new vocabulary and the mindset to go with it, is traditional security, which is getting a remarkably untraditional makeover. Companies today are forming which are consolidating the need for security. Less and less often are you seeing security divisions within companies which are not in the business of providing security. Instead, the role of security guard for most companies is often filled by an agent of companies which specialize in the outsourcing of such skillsets. What this means for the future is that we won’t see the old mall cops drifting around on their segways, whose only real talents don’t actually center on tactics and prevention, but on finding a job where they are being paid to stand there.

Instead, these jobs are going to be going more and more to the larger security companies who specialize in the role. Soon, we will likely see a time where all private security for public places, such as malls, workplaces, and schools, all wear an inconspicuous similar uniform labeled with the same logo throughout. Instead of working directly for the companies that employ them, they will be contracted in, all centrally trained and networked with their other satellite offices and local police, all working under a centralized headquarters somewhere in the city, or perhaps across the globe. One such example is Sweden’s Securitas, a logo known throughout the West.

A recent article followed Securitas and the year it has had [53]. According to the Association for Financial Professionals, Securitas experienced “a sharp rise in profits for 2015 amid an increased threat of terrorism and the European migrant crisis.”

Net profit for the full-year rose by 18 percent to 2.44 billion kronor (258 million euros, $288 million), or eight percent excluding currency effects.

Sales climbed by 15 percent to 80.8 billion kronor.

In Europe, sales rose by eight percent to 37.5 billion for 2015 and by 11 percent in the fourth quarter, bolstered by the November 13 attacks in Paris and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe.

The company earnings report cites the increased need for security services owed to terrorism alerts and the refugee situation has impacted organic sales growth in Western Europe, mostly in countries like France, Belgium, Germany and Sweden. They also reported a similar rise in Turkey, a country which has welcomed around two million Syrian refugees and saw numerous terrorist attacks within the last year. Securitas also saw a 24 percent increase in North American sales, as well.

Securitas isn’t alone, however. Spain’s Prosegur has a healthy share of the European public security market along with an American based security firm G4S. G4S started becoming more known for its role as the principal security provider for the 2012 London Summer Olympics, a significant role ever since the Munich massacre where eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were killed. They have also been called by some the largest company you’ve never heard of [54], since they maintain the third largest corporate workforce of any company Earth (660,000 employees) and are considered (loosely) by some to be the largest private military that has ever existed. [55]

While training for you and me will be mandated behavior to attempt to control and mitigate threats, and very large, very structured private security companies will provide for the broader public to help prevent the dangers, another tier of security will create a phenomenon never before seen – the million dollar bodyguard.

Uncertain Future – Part IX – Physical Security

Changing gears from cyber security to the tangible world, 2015 saw one of bloodiest years on record since the end of World War II. Terrorism that originated in Middle Eastern conflicts has spread out and is beginning to become commonplace in Europe and even starting to appear, yet again, in the United States. The Charlie Hebdo and November 2015 Paris Attacks, along with a third attempt foiled by the presence of American military veterans rocked Europe as the world mourned for them. In the US, a similar, though far less attack, took place in San Bernardino, California. Between these three major attacks, around 160 people were killed. This, however, pales in comparison to the world-wide effects of terrorism. In total, there were nearly 400 terrorist attacks around the world that we know of [51]. In that, it is likely that more than ten thousand people lost their lives in acts of pure terror. I say pure terror, not to add drama to the point, but to differentiate these acts from the similar acts of violence. Acts of warfare, kidnapping, and social strong-arming are being ignored, as their practice has exploded in the last decade to unestimatable levels.

How this will affect the world in the next twenty years is that people, meaning nations, firms, and individuals, will be taking greater steps towards ensuring their own safety in the event of attack. For many, this will see annual trainings being required at many workplaces and schools. Many are already doing this. In another answer, I described how the last decade of terror and threat of “active shooters” has led to new methods and tactics aimed at empowering the individual victim to better deal with theses threats in a way that mitigates their danger, or when cornered in the worst case scenario, confront and attempt to neutralize the attackers. One such training program is ALICE, controversial in that it actually coaches victims of an active shooter incident to fight back as a very last. [52]

Uncertain Future – Part VIII -Cyberwarfare

According to the Rand Corporation, [35] Cyber warfare involves the actions by a nation-state or international organization to attack and attempt to damage another nation’s computers or information networks through, for example, computer viruses or denial-of-service attacks. RAND research provides recommendations to military and civilian decisionmakers on methods of defending against the damaging effects of cyber warfare on a nation’s digital infrastructure because, when nations involve themselves in the acts of cracking, all bets are off. As previously mentioned, even massive companies like Sony can be leveled by a national attack. Second, we have to ask what counts as warfare? Can it really be an act of war if no one can possibly die from it? Does it matter that this was an American company? Does it change things that it is American citizens? What does retaliation look like? The truth is, we don’t have a lot of answers for this right now, but where it might lead to is nerve racking.

Joel Brenner, a Senior Counsel at the National Security Agency, in his book America the Vulnerable, focuses on the subject of cyber warfare. He speaks at length about the vulnerabilities to the United States, some already proven and some hypothetical. One threat we may one day face which he poses, comes in the form of an attack on our infrastructure. An attack centered on the Los Angeles powergrid could hold half the West Coast hostage. A similar attack against the DOD or VA could publish every scrap of data on over 22 million veterans for the whole world to see. What’s worse, he showed how capabilities already exist that could do this.

He continues in his book to describe the threat posed by China. China is a special case in that, besides a cyber warfare branch of the People’s Liberation Army [36], China also has the added asset of tens of thousands of nationalistic, “Patriot Hackers”. These individuals form a community of cracker groups which focus on exploiting all international information vulnerabilities from corporate, to military, and even personal. This core group of international hackers has been responsible for countless patent thefts and billions in lost research and development to the benefit of Chinese corporations, but is also responsible for compromising classified information worldwide. China’s hacker community is distinctly different from that of nations like the United States, which, if a pattern could be set, would be better described as anarchistic and anti-government (remember Anonymous), and even those in Russia, who are much more geared to cyber crime for profit. China’s hackers, instead work together alongside, or at least to the benefit of, China’s national government. All this while still be officially “unaffiliated” with the government for diplomatic and legal reasons. Effectively, the Chinese have a clandestine cyber national guard, growing in capabilities and there isn’t really a thing the world can do about it.

In fact, the largest breach of security for information in an American database last year didn’t come from someone hacking some corporation to turn a quick profit. It came from China. [37] Last year, the Office of Personnel Management discovered that information over 21 million victims had slipped into hacker’s hands.  [38]The attack lasted over a year and included some 19 million people who applied for government security clearances and the information pertaining to their background checks, along with 1.8 million spouses, friends, and family members. To throw gasoline onto the fire, another 5.6 million fingerprint files of federal employees may have been lost [39], as well.

Moving Westward, Russia is a concern, as well. Having lost much of their technological edge in the last twenty years, they’re working to reclaim lost ground. Currently, when one thinks of Russian hackers, they are probably thinking of internet fraud and child pornography. Over the last few years, however, their capabilities have attempted to close the gap. Recently, in their ongoing conflict between Ukraine, Russian hackers were able to shutdown major sections of the Ukrainian power grid. [40]More concerning, however, is Russia’s attempts to control the media through the very bottom up. Called The 50 Ruble Army, Russia has copied a Chinese tactic to start employing professional commenters, people who scroll the internet commenting on content that weighs negatively against Russia with links to pro-Russian content, articles, and propaganda. [41] (Oh, yeah. Did I forget that about China, too? [42])If you speak about Russia long enough, you’ll see these guys.

But Russia and China aren’t the only concern in cyberwarfare. What’s surprising many, is the capabilities of players that weren’t normally seen in traditional spheres of  computing capability. In 2011, by all accounts, Iran was able to steal a United States CIA stealth drone, literally out of the sky.  [43]

According to Iranian sources, they were able to capture the US drone by “spoofing” the onboard GPS system. After technicians were able to hack into the drone, they broke the link with the systems remote controllers. From this point, according to the Iranian source, they simply told the drone to land in on an Iranian base, believing it to be its home in Afghanistan.  [44]Quite frankly, if any part of that story is true, that is a real head scratcher for the Americans. More so than that, given the relatively unharmed state of the drone, at least from the pictures, it very well could be true. As far back as 2012, the concept of GPS spoofing was a proven concept by researchers at the University of Texas.  [45]Given the resources of an entire nation, it wouldn’t surprise me terribly if they figured it out faster than a single American college.

Granted, the loss of our drone rattled many, but it wasn’t the first attack in the Iran/American Cyber War. Nor would it be the last.

Let’s take a step back to the 1980’s. Russia had poor abilities to produce microchips and the soviets worked to steal technology from the West, decades aheads of them technologically speaking. Because of a defector, the United States was able to know what it was Soviet spies were after. The Americans allowed flawed microprocessors to be stolen and their programs copied. These were made so well that they passed an initial inspection, only break down chemical and manufacturing facilities and overpower turbines in the Trans-Siberian pipeline. When soviet spies stole plans for gas-line pumps, they were unaware that it was intentionally designed to pump with much more pressure than the pipes were ever meant to handle. William Safire of the New York Times in 2004 was the first to break this story 25 years later. In his words, “The result was the most monumental, non-nuclear explosion and fire, ever seen from space.”

Fast forward a few decades.

In January 2010, inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency visiting the Natanz uranium enrichment plant in Iran noticed that centrifuges used to enrich uranium gas were failing at an unprecedented rate. The cause was a complete mystery—apparently as much to the Iranian technicians replacing the centrifuges as to the inspectors observing them.

Five months later a seemingly unrelated event occurred. A computer security firm in Belarus was called in to troubleshoot a series of computers in Iran that were crashing and rebooting repeatedly. Again, the cause of the problem was a mystery. That is, until the researchers found a handful of malicious files on one of the systems and discovered the world’s first digital weapon.

Stuxnet, as it came to be known, was unlike any other virus or worm that came before. Rather than simply hijacking targeted computers or stealing information from them, it escaped the digital realm to wreak physical destruction on equipment the computers controlled.

WIRED senior staff writer Kim Zetter [46]

A piece of code began showing itself around which became known as the Stuxnet virus, made famous for its approach to disabling Iranian nuclear refinement operations. Brenner describes why Stuxnet was so incredible. It was a worm, a self-replicating virus, which utilized not just one, but four previously unknown vulnerabilities in Microsoft operating systems to spread itself throughout a worldwide infection. Once spread, it sought out particular Siemens centrifuges, like those used by the Iranians to refine Uranium, and bring them down. This virus baffled engineers for months, unaware that random system outages were really the result of advanced sabotage efforts from outside the country. What it showed was the threat to even extremely powerful and well defended military systems were possible via online attack. More perplexing, the Stuxnet virus, Brenner postulates, could have only have been created by one of a very few groups who would have had the technological capability to create it, that being the national governments of either United States, Russia, China, Israel, or one of a few members of the European Community. It goes way beyond the capability of the midnight hacker savant or the college computer science nerd out for kicks. This was deliberate and ingeniously engineered attack conducted by nations.

Enter: The US Cyber Command. All the necessary ingredients are in place for the possibility of cyber-threats from other nations, or even cyber-terrorism. For all intents and purposes, the United States built them. For that reason, the United States military created the US Cyber Command. On June 23, 2009, the Secretary of Defense directed the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command to establish a sub-unified command, United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM). Full Operational Capability (FOC) was achieved Oct. 31, 2010. The Command has three main focus areas: Defending the Department of Defense’s Intelligence assets, providing support to combatant commanders for execution of their missions around the world, and strengthening our nation’s ability to withstand and respond to cyber attack. I couldn’t find a video. I don’t think they want me talking about it.

Many speculate that either the US Cyber Command, or some other third party affiliate with the CIA, or even companies like Hacking Team to have created the Stuxnet virus, in conjunction with allies in Israel. As of yet, US Cyber Command has only once, very recently admitted ever taking part in any offensive actions. In the fight to retake Mosul, Iraq US forces are working with allies in the region to stop ISIS on the ground, in the air, and via the web.  [47]

Meanwhile, U.S. forces are waging a cyber offensive to cut or spy on ISIS communications in Mosul. Carter said cyber attacks are being used “to interrupt [and] disrupt ISIL’s command and control, to cause them to lose confidence in their networks, to overload their network so that they can’t function, and do all of these things that will interrupt their ability to command and control forces there, control the population and the economy.”

While this is the first admitted time the US Cyber Command has officially been used in an act of cyber warfare, it will certainly not be the last. Along with this, many fear a future where it is needed. In an answer on a similar vein, I was once asked how vulnerable the US Naval fleet was to attack.

Future state-on-state conflict, as well as conflicts involving non-state actors such as al-Qaida, would increasingly be characterised by reliance on asymmetric warfare techniques, chiefly cyber-warfare, Chipman said. Hostile governments could hide behind rapidly advancing technology to launch attacks undetected. And unlike conventional and nuclear arms, there were no agreed international controls on the use of cyber weapons.

“Cyber-warfare [may be used] to disable a country’s infrastructure, meddle with the integrity of another country’s internal military data, try to confuse its financial transactions or to accomplish any number of other possibly crippling aims,” he said. Yet governments and national defence establishments at present have only limited ability to tell when they were under attack, by whom, and how they might respond.

The US Defence Department’s Quadrennial Defence Review, published this week, also highlighted the rising threat posed by cyber-warfare on space-based surveillance and communications systems.”On any given day, there are as many as 7 million DoD (Department of Defence) computers and telecommunications tools in use in 88 countries using thousands of war-fighting and support applications. The number of potential vulnerabilities, therefore, is staggering.” the review said.

“Moreover, the speed of cyber attacks and the anonymity of cyberspace greatly favour the offence. This advantage is growing as hacker tools become cheaper and easier to employ by adversaries whose skills are growing in sophistication.” [48]

Some of those vulnerabilities are forehead-smackingly simple, once you know where to look. “You can walk around any ship, most aircraft, and you can find either USB ports or serial ports that were put there for maintenance,” said Leigher. “They were done for good engineering reasons” — to download diagnostic data, for example — “but the engineer wasn’t thinking about computer security.” What if an enemy agent undercover as a contractor or even as a civilian on a good-will tour slipped a virus-loaded thumb drive into one of those ports? What if the bad guy simply tricked a sailor into doing it for him? [49]

U.S. computer experts playing the part of foreign hackers managed to shut down all communications among the U.S. Pacific fleet, and could have shut down the entire western half of the U.S. power grid. [50]

In that answer, given everything we know about the numerous breaks in our defenses, the capabilities of hackers across the globe, and the outdated systems of much of our Navy, it is plausible a group of hackers which are well enough organized and with enough backing, could compromise our carrier’s systems. It is possible that infected equipment could be installed on the ships themselves, since it is economically impossible to produce all the technologies built for these ships in government controlled factories, nor even, all in the United States. Foreign manufacturing produces gateway points for hardware to be slipped in with infected files that could then reproduce throughout the vessel’s internal secured networks and systems. If this were to happen, it is possible that these ships could be brought down through their own control systems, locking up, halting their communications, melting down their reactors, crashing them into the rocks or even city docks, or just causing them to float dead in the water defenseless against enemy attack and unable to protect us here at home.

Uncertain Future – Part VII – State Sponsored Cracking

Now that we have thoroughly made it clear that there is no place left safe on the internet for the common individual, or even major corporations and government organizations, what about the governments themselves? What role do they play in this story.

To begin with, let’s talk about Hacking Team. Hacking Team is a company out of Milan that deals in “offensive intrusion and surveillance” capabilities. This includes the ability to monitor communications of internet users, decipher encrypted files and emails, record Skype and VoIP phone calls, as well as remotely activate microphones and cameras on the devices they target. Their primary clients include governments and major corporations, including a few governments with shady human rights records. Basically, they are the most terrifying conspiracy theories on the internet come to life.

Hacking Team are leaders in the growing industry to help governments hack in ways that make the rest of this article look like child’s play. The Hacking Team gives its clients, through use of their Da Vinci and Galileo platforms the ability to do everything from keystroke logging, GPS tracking on cell phones, and extracting wifi passwords, among many other capabilities. [31] Perhaps most interesting is their ability to steal data on local accounts, contacts and transaction histories by decrypting Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency wallet files. [32]The tools they use, or rather sell, have been used by governments to… well… you’ve seen the movies. Before you start getting up in arms, you might want to check their previous clients, regimes such as Sudan, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, and have been accused of being used against activists and protesters in Morocco, Syria, the United Arab Emirates. [33]They even basically serve as the intelligence agency of the Uganda. Some of those relationships landed them in hot water with the UN. To make matters even more frightening, the Italian company maintains two satellite offices within the United States, one in Annapolis and another in Washington DC. That shouldn’t lead people think this relationship buys the US anything though, since Hacking Team is suspected of selling tools to clients in Turkey who used it on a woman in the US [34]and is now suspected of selling their technology to Syria, as well.

What’s put Hacking Team in the news now? Perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, they too were also hacked in 2015. At some point their network was breached and published online – over 400 gigabytes of data. Like I said before, no one is safe.

Hacking Team’s fate, while ironic, only served to open the eyes of millions to existence of real companies whose only profession is equipping governments with the tools to break down any wall, crack any password, end any online uprising, and own our digital lives. For an example, let’s start with something small, like a foreign government hacking into a major American company to determine what media Americans and the rest of the world were allowed to see.

You know, I’ve always wondered if any of the “A movie they don’t want you to see,” advertisements were ever real. Turns out, there was one that absolutely was. In late 2014, Sony pictures planned to release a movie about a talk show host invited to North Korea. Oh, and he tries to assassinate the dictator. It was an okay movie, but honestly, not something you would watch twice on purpose. Where things went terribly, horribly wrong was when Sony pictures suddenly pulled the movie. In the weeks leading up to the release, the North Korean government expressed their “disapproval” of the film. With its ending scene depicting the violent death of their glorious leader, the North Koreans demanded the movie never show… or else. Whatever, we’re Americans, or sort of. Sony Pictures was in America at least. What are they really going to do, bomb us?

No, they didn’t bomb anyone. Instead, what they did was hack Sony Pictures. In that breach, they stole data that included personal information about Sony Pictures employees and their families, e-mails between employees, information about executive salaries at the company, copies of then-unreleased Sony films, and other information. They threatened to release the information, which any of it could have been deadly to the company, from its employee’s information to scripts of movies that haven’t been made. What happened next?

Sony pulled the film.

Not long after, popular demand, and there was a lot of us who now demanded to see this movie, made it available for streaming. Eventually, we were all able to get our fill of the death of the most infamous man alive, but it cost us. The Guardian called the event a massive defeat on American soil and the message was received, international government sponsored hackers can scare Americans into doing whatever they want.

It pissed us off as it introduced a new word into our collective lexicon: Cyberwarfare.

Uncertain Future – Part IV – Doxxing

The Gamergate scandal didn’t end at name calling, though. Several key individuals suffered far more than the traditional effects of the average internet rabble. Along with threats of rape and murder, which are disturbing, but easily dismissed given the safety that online anonymity provides, there was another threat, one which pierced that veil of safety and put the power directly in the hands of the mob.

Doxxing.

Doxxing – from documents – search for and publish private or identifying information about (a particular individual) on the Internet, typically with malicious intent.

“hackers and online vigilantes routinely dox both public and private figures.” [11]

During Gamergate the ugly side of the conflict saw the threat, “We will dox you,” begin to surface for the first time. Doxxing, as the definition states is when online users attempt to publish personal information about other users, celebrities, or public figures against their will. This personal information ranges from your real name to private email, banking information, and anything that hackers can get hold of. Once one member discovers it and is able to publish it, the fear is that it may lead to future attacks, such as flooding email accounts with harassment emails via a botnet attack, or worse, people literally able to knock on your door.

And this is exactly what happened to the internet’s Queen, Felicia Day.

Day commented that she had thus far remained silent on the issue of Gamergate to fans and the media, including over 2.3 million Twitter followers at the time, not because she wanted to or didn’t care, but out of fear of getting doxxed  – and seeing her personal information become public knowledge on the seedy parts of the internet.

“I realised my silence on the issue was not motivated by some grand strategy, but out of fear that the issue has created about speaking out. … I have tried to retweet a few of the articles I’ve seen dissecting the issue in support, but personally I am terrified to be doxxed for even typing the words ‘gamer gate’. I have had stalkers and restraining orders issued in the past, I have had people show up on my doorstep when my personal information was hard to get.”

This was posted on her personal blog, in a post titled simply The Only Thing I have to Say about Gamergate. [12]She was immediately attacked online and doxxed. Felicia’s experiences in the past have included direct encounters with stalkers, empowered by knowledge about her that they shouldn’t have access to. Others, such as one of the women central to the beginning of Gamergate, Anita Sarkeesian a game designer who also makes videos explaining misogynist tropes in gaming, were far more disturbing.

According to Time, Sarkeesian, had to flee her home because of violent threats. She was even forced to cancel a speaking engagement at Utah State University after an anonymous person sent a letter to the school administration threatening to massacre students if she spoke. “I will write my manifesto in her spilled blood, and you will all bear witness to what feminist lies and poison have done to the men of America,” the letter read.

Now, perhaps, we are getting the reason that anonymity is something of a concern for security analysts. With abilities such as doxxing, which is just one among many possible issues that internet users face, those who use the internet, or everyone, is going to need to learn to deal with some new and very profound threats. In the way that we prepared ourselves for active shooters with things like A.L.I.C.E. training, training is going to have to be done to teach people how to protect their personal information from slippage, the military term for unwanted dispersal of sensitive information. If we don’t take that initiative,I’m afraid of an internet where anonymity creates a world where there are no activists. Many who have read and follow my work know, if nothing else, one thing about me; I am super American. I like that I have this right and freedom to speak up and speak out, but at the point where living room vigilantes are able to threaten the safety of women for complaining about big tits in video games, along with anyone who happens to listen… I’m seriously afraid of a world twenty years down the road. That anonymity grants protection for criminal acts is something we should very seriously be concerned and something the leaders of the internet need to seriously consider when they list their values. As was mentioned before, to quote Goya, “fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters.” That said, don’t be surprised if in your next annual security briefing, you see the “Dox” for the first, but not the last time.