Mobile Warfare

It has been recognized that mobile technologies have had a significant impact on the events that occurred in North Africa. In my opinion, their impact was so impressive that I refer to them with the term of “mobile warfare” indicating with this term the fact that they are going to play a crucial role in the (let us hope fewer and fewer) wars of the future.

Since the Wikileaks affaire, and the consequent possibility to convert an Android Device into a Wikileaks Mirror during the attempt to put the main site off-line by mean of massive DDoS Attacks, it was clear to me that Mobile Technologies would have played a very important (never uncovered before) role in 2011, not only in Hacktivism, but, more in general, in human rights related issues.

I had a dramatic confirmation of this role during the Jasmin Revolution in Tunisia, where mobile technologies made every single citizen a reporter, capable of sharing in real time with the rest of the world information such as images, videos and  tweets pertaining the dramatic events happening inside the country.

But it was with the #Jan25 and #Egypt tweets that the World discovered for the first time the power of the mobile warfare.  In those dramatic days every single person of the planet only needed to access her Twitter account in order to become a virtual witness of the events; dramatic facts reported in great detail by hundreds of extemporaneous reporters “armed” only with a Smartphone, and made available in real time to the rest of the world thanks to the “six degrees of separation allowed by Social Networks”. The strength and the impact of this mobile warfare were so huge to force the declining Egyptian Government to shut the internet off for several days starting from January, the 27th.

Can we really understand what does it mean for a country to shut the Internet off? As single persons we are so used to the Web that we could not resist a single hour without checking the status of our mates. But for a country, an Internet connection disruption means a nearly complete stop for all economic and financial activities, including banking, trading, and so on. The only fact to have enforced such a dramatic decision (and the upcoming consequences) is particularly meaningful of the threat led by the Mobile Warfare and perceived by the Egyptian Government. But to have a clear understanding, we must also consider the fact that, at the same time, also the Egyptian Government tried to unleash the power of the mobile warfare with its clumsy attempt to stop the revolution by broadcasting Pro-Government SMS, thanks to country’s emergency laws, causing the following protests of Vodafone.

And what about Libya? I have a direct experience since I was in Tripoli for work at the beginning of last February (so one month and half ago even if it looks like a century has passed since then). I was not even completely out of the finger leading me from the aircraft to the airport facility, that I was impressed in noticing so many Libyan pepole playing with their iPhones. Since I just could not help thinking  to the Egyptian situation, I asked to some of them if they had the feeling that something similar to Egypt could happen in Libya. Guess what they answered? They all simply agreed on the fact that, due to the different economic and political situation, it was impossible! Of course the point is not their answer rather than the fact that I was surprised to see so many smartphones (ok we are speaking about the airport which maybe is not so meaningful in terms of statistics) and more in general so many devices capable to provide an high level internet user experience (even if with the bottleneck of the local mobile networks) and be potentially used as a mobile warfare.

That event was just a kind of premonition since, a couple of weeks later, during the first days of the protests, and in particular during the reaction of the regime, smartphones and social networks once again played a leading role, allowing the world to witness in real time those dramatic events with a spreading rate unknown before. For the second time, approximately three weeks after Egypt, a country decided to disconnect the Internet in order to prevent the spread of information via the Social Networks. This time it was Libya’s turn, which decided to unplug the Web on February, the 18th. Once again the power of the mobile warfare was unleashed, disconnecting a country from the Internet in few minutes (how long would a real army have taken to do a similar sabotage?).

Is mobile warfare the cause or effect?

We must not make the mistake to consider the mobile warfare as an effect of the movements raised first in Tunisia, than in Egypt, and finally in Libya. Mobile warfare is simply the cause, since it is just for the action of mobile warfare that events could spread rapidly inside a single country, and later among different countries (in both cases with an unprecedented speed), encouraging other people to follow the example and acting, in turn, as a powerful catalyzer for the movements. As an example, consider the following article, which in my opinion is particular meaningful: it shows the Middle East Internet Scorecard, that is the dips of Internet connections registered in different countries belonging to Middle East in the week between February 11 and February 17 (that is when the social temperature in Libya was getting extremely hot): one can clearly recognize a viral spread of the “unplugging infection”.

What should we expect for the future?

Mobile Warfare has played and is still playing a significant role in the wind of changes that are blowing in North Africa.  Thanks (also) to mobile technologies, people (most of all students) living in countries where human rights suffer some kind of limitations, have the possibility to keep continuously in touch with people living in different countries, learning their habits, and, in turn being encouraged to “fight” for achieving (or at least for attempting to achieve) a comparable condition. This revolution is not only technological but it is most of all cultural since it is destroying all the barriers that kept many countries separated each other and that allowed many population to live (apparently) in peace simply because they completely ignored the existence of a world outside: we could consider this as the equivalent of the old infosec paradigm (Homeland) Security Through Obscurity”.

At the opposite side, it is likely that all those Governments, having a peculiar idea about what human rights are, will deploy some kind of countermeasure to fight the mobile warfare and its inseparable companion: the social network. I do not think that completely preventing the use of mobile technologies is an applicable weapon, since they became too many important for a country (politics, economics, finance, etc.): nowadays each kind of information flows in real time, consequently no country may allow to go slower.

Moreover,  for the reasons I explained above, the Internet disconnection is not a sustainable countermeasure as well, since no government in the world may allow to be cut-out for too long, in order to simply prevent people from tweeting or sharing ideas or videos on social networks. Even because, for instance, U.S. has secret tools to force Internet in case of disruption, which include the Commando Solo, the Air Force’s airborne broadcasting center, capable to get back to full strength the Wi-Fi signal in a bandwidth-denied area; satellite- and nonsatellite-based assets that can provide access points to get people back online; and finally cell towers in the sky, hooking up cellular pods to the belly of a drone, granting 3G coverage for a radius of a few kilometers on the ground would have 3G coverage underneath the drone. Would be interesting to verify if any of these technologies are currently being used in the Odissey Dawn operation.

For all the above quoted reasons, according to my personal opinion the countermeasures will aim to make unusable the resources of information collection (that is mobile devices), and the resources of information sharing (that is social networks).

So this new generation of Cyber-warfare will involve:

  • A preventive block of Social Network in order to prevent whatever attempt to preventively share information. For the above quoted reason a total block will damage the whole economy (even if I must confess a preventive block of this kind will be quite easily bypassable by external proxies);
  • A massive Denial of Service for mobile devices through massive exploit of vulnerabilities (more and more common and pervasive on this kind of devices), through massive mobile malware deployment or also by mean of massive execution of mobile malware (as, for instance, Google did in order to remotely swipe the DroidDream malware). Honestly speaking I consider the latter option the less likely since I can easily imagine that no manufacturer will provide cooperation on this (but this does not prevent the fact that a single country could consider to leverage this channel).
  • Spoofing the mobile devices in order to make them unreachable or also in order to discredit them as source of reputable information.
  • A “more traditional” Denial Of Service in order to put Social Networks offline (even if this would need a very huge DDoS due to the distribution of the resources of the Social Network providers.

In all the above quoted cases would be legitimate to expect a reaction, as done for instance, by the infamous Anonymous group.

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