The New Battlefront

One hundred years ago, the conflict once known as the Great War raged in much of Europe. The war — later to be referred to as World War I — took a devastating toll on human lives, but primarily consisted of border battles. Clashes erupted along international borders and proceeded only as far as the ground troops were able to push. Even among the countries that were ultimately defeated, huge swaths of land — including capital cities such as Vienna — were virtually untouched by the fighting.

The next World War took a far greater toll in numerous ways. The widespread use of aerial attacks, which included tactics like carpet bombing, saw entire cities demolished. The marauding German armies murdered millions of civilians as they swallowed up entire countries. This was no longer a border battle as the enemies saw fit to sink their deadly fangs into every city, town, village, or even farm in the countryside.

Seventy years after World War II finally came to an end, we are increasingly seeing signs of a frightening new type of conflict. Taking its place alongside old-fashioned battles like civil wars, conflicts between countries, and the plague of international terrorism, vast changes in the way we live have laid the groundwork for a very different type of battlefield.

For better and for worse, there is no turning back the clock. Our lives are increasingly dependent on globally linked technology.

For most people, emailing has replaced the handwritten or typed letter or fax as a primary method of written communication. Emails are used countless times a day for the most confidential and important conversations. All types of sensitive documents — ranging from trade secrets and company plans, to the deeply personal musings of one friend to another — are being sent via email and other forms of technology-based transmissions.

Though letters were, throughout the generations, occasionally intercepted and read, in free societies, peaceful, ordinary citizens generally had no reason to fear or suspect such intrusions.

But while experts have been warning about the dangers of hacking for years, it took a scandal of international proportions to truly bring it to the forefront.

Word that hackers working for the North Korean government successfully brought a mammoth company such as Sony to its knees should send shivers down the spine of free people everywhere.

Although this scandal happens to involve a film, let there be no misunderstanding: that isn’t what it really is about. What the Sony saga illustrates is just how far hackers can reach and how they can use this incredible power to control the lives and future of their victims.

One doesn’t even have to own a computer to fall prey to gangsters using cyberwar to destroy the lives of their innocent victims. One can still choose to pay credit cards or utility bills by check — at least so far — but every bit of personal information is available on the computer system of the company one does business with for every hacker to see and use.

As its numerous victims can readily attest, identity theft — in which criminals use someone else’s Social Security number and other personal information to rack up huge bills, wreck credit histories, and even land the victims on the receiving end of criminal investigations — can be extraordinarily devastating. The victim’s heartfelt insistence that “this isn’t me” won’t suffice, and it can take months or even years for the victims to disentangle themselves from the trap they had been pushed into.

On Friday, President Barack Obama said the U.S. would respond to the cyberattack, although, unwilling to tip off the North Koreans, he wisely declined to reveal the options under consideration.

“They caused a lot of damage. And we will respond,” he said. “We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.”

The president is right for reprimanding Sony for caving in to threats from anonymous hackers. While the release of sensitive emails and the salaries of main executives certainly isn’t a pleasant experience, giving in to terror should never be an option.

More importantly, the president is correct in affirming that it is incumbent upon the United States to retaliate for this act. It is crucial that a strong and loud statement be made to all those who wish to use the inherent weaknesses of modern technology as a way to tunnel into every home and office to seize the most personal and sensitive information and use it to destroy the lives of peaceful civilians all across the globe.n