ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday April 13, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 46

Cyber war

Techno Page By Harendra Alwis

With the threat of bombs going off amid the Avurudu festivities, I don't want to be a gloomy doomsayer. But I spent much of last week thinking about military-like activity that is being conducted on the Internet and I could not resist the temptation to share a few of those thoughts with you all this week.

Quite a bit of warfare is shifting from heavy artillery and the threat of nuclear attacks, to bits of electronic pulses discretely making their way all through the Internet. Some of them are aimed at disabling enemy communications or their integrated defence mechanisms while others are for intelligence gathering. However, to ask whether we would rather conduct war over the Internet than with guns and bombs will be an over-simplification of the very complex evolution of methods we use to resolve conflicts.

In an exclusive interview with ZDNet last week, Lt. Gen. Robert Elder Jr. of the US Air Force has revealed that a US Air Force Cyber Command is set to become operational in October this year. It is aimed at not only fighting off "cyber" attacks from foreign countries (I suppose, he would have been thinking – China when he said "foreign countries"), and terrorist groups but also to go on the offensive. According to Gen. Elder, offensive cyber-attacks in network warfare make conventional attacks more effective; for example if an adversary's integrated defence systems or weapons systems can be disrupted using cyber attacks. Modern armies, who tend to be more and more dependent on computers and computer networks, also become more vulnerable to network attacks.

The need for Cyber defence systems is emphasised by the fact that terrorists and criminals are not only using the Internet to carry out attacks, but also for propaganda and fund raising through Internet fraud.

Devastating attacks are carried out on the Internet every day, even though it is not technically war as we know it and there are no fatalities. War is usually about one party trying to take something from another party, which they are not willing to give; that – we also know – constitutes 'theft.' What's happening on the Internet is no different and more often than not, the aim of the attack or cyber-war is to steal information. Valuable information – some that have costed a government or private sector investor a lot of money to research and develop, often gets stolen for an infinitesimal fraction of the cost it took to produce.

The monetary loss reported from Internet crime reached an all-time high in 2007, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Centre's (IC3) 2007 Internet Crime report. The Internet presents a wealth of opportunity for would-be criminals or terrorist organisations looking to raise funds.

That's about all the ill-timed bad news I have got for now... Next week, I promise to be back with some good news about how technology is indeed making things better. Till then, write in to and keep me company.

Imrpove your computer literacy

A neural network is a type of artificial intelligence that attempts to imitate the way a human brain works. Rather than using a digital model, in which all computations manipulate zeros and ones, a neural network works by creating connections between processing elements, the computer equivalent of neurons. The organization and weights of the connections determine the output. Neural networks are particularly effective for predicting events when the networks have a large database of prior examples to draw on. Strictly speaking, a neural network implies a non-digital computer, but neural networks can be simulated on digital computers.

The field of neural networks was pioneered by Bernard Widrow of Stanford University in the 1950s. Neural networks are currently used prominently in voice recognition systems, image recognition systems, industrial robotics, medical imaging, data mining and aerospace applications.

Virtually there

Virtual machine software, which allows a computer to simultaneously run different operating systems and applications, is already having a big impact in corporate data centres. Desktop virtualization technology also comes in different flavours.

Some of it is server-based like the so-called thin-client hardware and software offered by vendors like Wyse, Hewlett Packard and Citrix. Others, like MokaFive, emphasize virtual machines running on desktops and laptops, though managed over the network, when connected. And some big corporate heavyweights are beginning to market virtual PC software that runs on the desktop, like VMware with its ACE offering; Microsoft recently bought a MokaFive competitor, Kidaro.

However the market develops, in five years or so virtual machine software will change how most personal computing is done. It can be hosted in a data-centre cloud, running on a desktop or some combination of the two.

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