A very short story with a long ending
“What did you do in the Great Cyberwar daddy?”
What can I say? The answer is pretty much what everyone else did, which is try and survive. In other words, nothing. The first we all knew about it was when the electricity went off, and did not come back on again. Then other utilities, water, gas and phones. Then the Net itself went down and everyone was in the dark both literally and figuratively. All of that within the space of a few hours. For some it happened overnight and they awoke to a broken world. Most cars still ran, for a while, although GPS was also out. Self driving cars didn’t. When the fuel ran out the gas stations were not pumping (no electricity), the supermarkets along with everyone else could not buy or sell because the payment systems were offline. Within 24 hours looting broke out on a global scale from the richest nations to the poorest and martial law became the new norm.
Nobody died directly in the first cyberstikes. However as days turned to weeks and looting became rioting and in many places turned into civil war, the casualties headed into the millions as governments struggled to organize the necessities of life. In much of the world disease and mass starvation added to the deaths.
I had some notion of just how bad it was a couple of nights after the strike. In the cities people for the first time had a clear view of the night sky once the fires had died down. It was total blackness. We went outside onto the roof and watched the shooting stars, except they were anything but. They were debris from satellites re-entering and burning up.
It’s been two years now and I can’t exactly say things have returned to normal. Food is still rationed since distribution was the hardest part of the infrastructure to recover, and such fictions as money and credit no longer mean anything. It’s all turned very old school Soviet, with a command economy where the military is the backbone complete with uncooperative people being put into labor camps and everyone being assigned work whether they like it or not. No work, no eat. It turns out that things like Human Rights take a back seat when your stomach is empty. A lot of “criminals” are still being summarily executed by firing squad after brief tribunal hearings. Meanwhile the political arguments rage around what to do with the now totally insolvent and bankrupt financial system, with a majority calling for a Year Zero plan of debt and asset cancellation. The minority who were rich are vehemently disagreeing. Elsewhere that question is being settled by gunfire in the streets, bankers hanging from lampposts and revolutions. At least we have avoided that. For now.
As someone said, it was like World War Three but without the nukes, and everyone surviving — at first. For those nations that had civil defense planning, which most did not, it was either too little by being geared to localized natural disasters such as earthquakes or too little by being geared towards an expectation that most people would be dead and hence not a problem.
So, what happened? Nobody knows, and if they do it has not been made official public knowledge. However enough information has leaked that we have a good idea of the sequence of events, if not exactly who did what or where to assign the blame.
It started as some kind of tit for tat three way petty annoyance between the USA, Russia and China with targeted attacks across the Net on infrastructure such as electricity generation during some trade disputes amid accusations of hacking. The problem that became apparent was that it was almost impossible to locate the origin of the attacks, so certain assumptions were made. The most crucial one being that only major state actors were involved. It was later determined that this was not true, although who or what was acting as agent provocateur is still not clear. At least that’s the story. Conspiracy nuts are split on this. Either it being a coverup by “them”, meaning our “secret government” aka NWO aka Illuminati etc or its was a global conspiracy of organized crime of the James Bond variety. Most people just think its an excuse to dodge blame, or at least not point the finger at someone with nukes still ready to go. Others suggest factions within “rogue nations” or even casual hackers and griefers who just got a bit too lucky. If the latter is true they are keeping a very low profile i.e. shitting themselves. Or more likely once the audit trails were reconstructed they found themselves quietly dead.
A number of other factors massively exacerbated the situation. The most serious was that all the major security agencies hoarded computer vulnerabilities for their own use instead of collaborating with industry to fix them. The second factor was unavoidable — it was the use of artificial intelligence (AI) as a war fighting tool. Because it was expected that humans could not respond fast enough beyond a certain threshold there was a trigger point (classified) where the war became automated. The AIs from that point had permission not only to defend by whatever means necessary, or even launch their own attacks, but were allowed to choose their targets based on what they were learning as the war unfolded. The third factor was a political decision taken long before all this happened by at least one participant. It came to be known as the “Last Man Standing” doctrine. This basically said that the winner(s) would be those nations which did not take part in the war. Since the AIs were directed to win the war this meant they instantly escalated to non combatants in order to make sure there was no last-man-standing anywhere on Earth. Reputedly, and to much official denial from all parties, even allies were targeted. Within minutes attacks were launched all across Asia, Europe and Latin America before any human knew what was happening, and each side assumed one of the others was knowingly responsible. The predictable response was that a lot of petty players joined in the fight and later muddied the waters further as they used it as an opportunity to settle old scores the traditional way — with military forces and a series of “real” wars across most of the politically unstable regions of the world.
In addition, in previous such incidents neither side used either their best weapons (Stuxnet excepted) or all of them simultaneously. Nor did they attack with the aim of doing maximum permanent damage.
At this point much of the Net was still functioning because all sides needed it for offensive operations, but at about an hour into the war an inflection point occurred where the AIs decided defense should be primary, and Net connections were severed. Some of them physically by explosves that had been preplaced on undersea cables. China fared somewhat better with its Great Firewall, but in truth it was leaky and offensive operations into China continued. Elsewhere it made almost no difference other than taking civilian computers offline.
Even as nations were trying to isolate themselves a second wave of attacks emerged from Internet of Things (IoT) devices that had been suborned into botnets weeks, months or in some cases years in the past. Later jokingly referred to as “the attack of the toasters” it made the isolation tactics pointless.
On all sides, by two hours into the war military forces were on standby and politicians were being briefed on developments. Then some of the tens of thousands of low orbit comsats that provided cheap global Net connections by competing nations and corporations began to go dark. That is, although they apparently continued to route traffic according to intelligence analysts, control had been lost and nobody knew exactly what they were doing or who was operating them. At this point at least two fateful decisions were made. The first was to order all non-military comsats shut down for the duration, and the second was to hit those that failed to do so with anti-satellite missiles. This decision occurred almost simultaneously in at least two nations. There was one good thing that prevented the war from turning traditional hot — nations only attacked their own assets.
That provided a breathing space long enough for the human political establishments to talk over what remained of secure comms links mostly through landlines or geosync. Which was just as well because a few hours after the missiles were launched to take out the hacked sats, more of them started to disintegrate. Radars showed a Kessler Cascade. The debris from destroyed satellites was hitting others and breaking them apart, and so on. Low Earth orbit was being cleared of functioning systems by an ever expanding cloud of debris. The most expensive firework show in history.
Hostilities officially ceased within 24 hours. The damage was immense with the Net being severely fragmented and most of its bandwidth disappearing for years. Nobody was going to be putting up new satellites into the shotgun blasts sweeping around the planet. The major problem was getting the electricity grids working and stable. In some places this took weeks — it is a non trivial thing to restart a hacked continental grid from scratch. And highly non-trivial to restart a global economy, damaged far beyond that of even the worst recession or depression. Plus, when electricity was available and parts of the Net came online, attacks from dormant or fragmented botnets would flare up, most as distributed denial of service shots flailing around at nonsensical targets that ate up the bandwidth and time as they were tracked down and eliminated. Meanwhile just about every business on the planet was technically bankrupt.
Total cost to date, estimated: 50 million dead, $40 trillion damage