On my radar: Welcome to the cyber war zone

2015-03-19 06:00

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The term ‘asymmetric warfare’ describes a kind of warfare in which belligerents have unequal military resources, and weaker opponents use unconventional weapons and tactics to exploit the vulnerabilities of stronger enemies.

The term could also be applied to how terrorism, counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare work. In our digital age, asymmetric warfare has taken a chilling turn.

War, in a predigital era, was relatively straightforward and guided by the Geneva Conventions, the international laws that govern the protocol and rules of military conflict.

They insist on basic humanitarian rights for prisoners of war, as well as protection for the wounded and civilians in a war zone.War was generally fought by two opposing sides or countries, and the battlefield was physical.

Today, with the rise of terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State (IS), another term, non-state combatants, is being used more frequently and has a direct correlation to asymmetric warfare.

Terrorist groups are now being recognised, and dealt with, on the same level as governments.

The severity of their terrorism and the threat they pose to international peace makes it understandable why governments are willing to regard them as global (or national) entities, but these groups do not adhere to international rules and flout the Geneva Conventions’ guidelines.

Not only do these non-state combatants operate in undefined geographical areas, but their recruitment tactics play out within the countries they are targeting.

Not only is the enemy a non-recognised state, but is now also within.

The two men – Michael Olumide Adebolajo and Michael Oluwatobi Adebowale – who hacked British soldier Lee Rigby to death in 2013 were both British, as were three teenage girls who travelled to Syria to join the IS.

Much of the recruitment process of the British teenagers played out on social media, which takes the term asymmetric warfare to another level: not only is the enemy within, it is virtual.

Non-state combatants are using social media in a variety of ways, and not just for recruitment purposes. Ominous threats and warnings of attacks are filmed and posted on YouTube, as are beheadings.

In the Elizabethan era, the heads of those who were executed were placed on spikes for the public to see.

A writer for the Financial Times made a chilling observation that social media today is the digital era’s version of that gruesome spike.Cyberhacking, too, has become a new form of warfare.

When the US Central Command was hacked earlier this year, a group calling themselves the Cyber Caliphate accepted responsibility and proclaimed the attack was in the name of a “cyberjihad”.

In cyberspace, the concept of asymmetric warfare is becoming more real and more challenging.

Outside of the political arena, the term asymmetric warfare can also be applied to business. Cyberattacks in America alone are costing companies $575?billion (R7?trillion) a year and the main targets are banks, technology firms and retailers.

Hacking, though, is a relatively new threat. The current war zone in retail is the battle between traditional bricks and mortar stores and e-commerce.

Add to that the impact of social media and store owners, and brands find themselves scrabbling to figure out where, when and how their customers are engaging with them.

Is it deep in cyberspace, on multiple social-media platforms (that need to be constantly monitored) or in the physical store? Marketers will know this problem as the elusive “omnichannel”.

Just as in asymmetric warfare, you no longer know from which direction your customer is coming at you. It is a different kind of war zone, but a war zone nevertheless.Even for parents, the notion of asymmetric warfare applies. The digital era has brought about new challenges in parenting.

It’s not so much the fear of your child becoming digitally addicted (although that is a major concern), but new threats such as cyberbullying, which is hard to monitor and control.I recently met the founder of a new company called SaveTNet, a platform that promotes responsible digital engagement.

The company specifically assists parents with problems related to cyberbullying and sexual predators who groom children via social media.

When I asked if – in the light of the British teenage girls who were lured to join the IS in Syria – SaveTNet had considered the threat of the recruitment of “caliphate cubs”, the expression in her eyes said it all.

The cyberthreat she had been so focused on had just been expanded and the scale of the possible loopholes exposed.

There is a new kind of war raging out there, and it’s coming at us from all angles.

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. Visit fluxtrends.com

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