Counter-terrorism has never been funny business till ‘Operation Cupcake’. That’s what MI6’s attack on the al-Qaeda website is being called by the British press. According to reports, the spy agency hacked the site to damage a magazine that the Qaeda uses to recruit terrorists. The magazine had a bomb-making recipe titled ‘Make a bomb in the kitchen of you mom’ by ‘The AQ Chef’. When people downloaded the magazine, instead of the recipe they got a lot of incomprehensible computer code. The code was actually of a web page of recipes for ‘The Best Cupcakes in America’. It was published by the Ellen DeGeneres chat show. It’s a fantastically cheeky gesture at an utterly humourless lot of people. Except for The AQ Chef – he must have a funny bone to call himself that.
There have been a number of reports in the past few days that the next theatre of conflict is going to be the online world. The UK and the US have been preparing for cyber warfare by working on arsenals of cyber weapons for some years now. Last year the US appointed a four star general to take charge of Pentagon’s Cyber Command, a unit that launches and thwarts virtual attacks. According to this rather alarmist report, China uses the services of The Red Hackers Alliance to launch cyber attacks primarily against India. Recently the Guardian quoted General Jonathan Shaw, who has been drafted to head the UK’s defence cyber-operations group, saying that cyberspace meant “conflict without borders”.
The most recent cyber attack was, of course, Stuxnet, a worm that targeted Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel is thought to be the most probable perpetrator of the attack.
Now the script for cyber warfare has been written several times in science fiction. And this is another surreal case of life mirroring art. What does a cyber arsenal contain? Worms, viruses, all sorts of ‘deadly’ code designed to incapacitate systems, intangible weapons that cause tangible damage.
But there just might be a positive side to this. Cyber warfare might in the future preclude the use of conventional weapons, which cost a ridiculous amount of money and are rarely used. It’s a bit silly to be spending all that money for things whose purpose will remain a show of might. Instead, these virtual worms could act as effective, low cost deterrents. Also they wouldn’t require large military facilities. You don’t need acres of encampment to protect what can be stored in a pen drive. In India that would be most useful as then a lot of land can be freed for housing. In fact the army would become practically redundant because all you really need is a bunch of hackers and coders. And that’s not such a bad thing because this way, they can set themselves to more useful pursuits. At least in India, where militarywallahs spend their lives participating in mock drills and march-pasts. Then the world would be a more peaceful place and we’d all be as happy as cupcakes.