If there is a third world war, which I hope not, it will be a war based on mathematics and computer science. Therefore, the answer to the question is yes, the next war will undoubtedly be on the internet. Right now all people and all entities, private and public, we are susceptible to be attacked by the Internet. It is proven that we are all possible victims, and not only when we use the Internet for economic transactions, but also because our data is of interest, and because our machines can be hijacked and used for tasks that require a lot of calculation, such as the mining of cryptocurrencies, example.
Other routes of attack that are beginning to be used and that will take more and more importance in the coming years are those that use the potential of the Internet of things that already connects many devices around us. We have already begun to see attacks of this type, such as those carried out with drones that recently paralyzed several airports in the United Kingdom. Research is working hard to develop defenses against this rapid technological deployment. And I do not say just me, said one of the most important cryptographers in the world, Adi Shamir, who predicted that the internet of things will become the biggest cybersecurity disaster we will face.
You have to have a clear thing, in that war on the Internet you can define many different objectives, of which we are not yet aware. For example, if an attack is launched against an airport, against an entity that controls trains, against traffic lights, against hospitals ... it will no longer be necessary to send bombs or soldiers. Now it is much easier from a computer to plan a remote attack and put a whole country at risk. You just have to know how to do it.
It is evident that just as before countries prepared their armies for the defense of their territory, today they must take pains to protect their cybersecurity. The National Cryptological Center, which depends on the National Intelligence Center, usually asks researchers for references of people trained in the subject, because there is currently a high demand for experts in cybersecurity, and yet there are not enough people trained in the subject.
Other routes of attack that are beginning to be used and that will take more and more importance in the coming years are those that use the potential of the Internet of things that already connects a multitude of devices around us
These entities try to find the best way to shield a country from a cybernetic point of view. There are several cryptographic algorithms of demonstrated practical strength, which would allow us to raise the level of security much more than we currently have, but we must bear in mind, first, that implementations usually weaken the security level of these algorithms, and second, that the weakest link is the lack of awareness and training of users, and this is just what in most cases, causes security to plummet.
Finally, I want to mention that when quantum computing is a reality, all the security systems we have implemented right now will no longer be effective. As soon as there are quantum computers of several thousand logical qubits and without errors, all the cryptography that we are currently using in our mobile phones, in ATMs, on the internet ... will be broken immediately. Therefore, what is being done in research is to think about the development of what is called post-quantum cryptography, which will involve replacing all the algorithms we use right now based on mathematical problems such as factoring, for others based on other mathematical problems like the codes, which will resist attacks with quantum computers. To reassure myself a bit I have to clarify that quantum computers are not developed to date, and although much progress is being made, there are reports that it is very unlikely that a quantum computer could be built in the next decade. Of course, we will have to be cryptographically prepared for when that happens.
It may be that people think that this type of war we are talking about is a much milder war than conventional wars with weapons. However, I especially get scared to think that with these wars on the internet, democracies could be at risk, because you can not trust the results of an election if you have the doubt of whether they have been manipulated or not. While it is true that in that case we would not be talking about killing people, we would be talking about annihilating democracy. In addition, if attacks on the Internet are directed against traffic lights, hospitals, airports, critical infrastructures ... we could be talking about killing people. Therefore, we must worry very seriously about this new kind of wars, because that is how our next wars will be.
Pino Caballero Gil is a professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence and coordinator of the CryptULL Group of Research in Cryptology at the University of La Laguna.
Question done via email by Lucía García
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