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Assume the following:

  • This is set in the near future (perhaps ~100 years?) of our Earth, or at least, something very closely resembling our Earth.
  • In this future setting, computers and wireless technology are everywhere. Cybernetic augmentations are becoming increasingly affordable and prevalent.
  • The capacities of "hacking" are realistic and have realistic limitations, i.e. no Hollywood Hacking.

At some point, the global powers realize that the new age of technology is undeniably permeating the frontier of warfare, and add a fully fledged "hacking" branch to their military forces. Their role is to support both national defense as well as combat efforts of troops abroad, though their main focus is offense due to the assumption that I am taking: from a cybersecurity standpoint, it is always easier to attack than to defend. (is this accurate?)

Essentially, I am hoping to make military hacking something like the new nuclear: something that powerful nations have, a lot of nations want, and right now, they're trying not to point them at each other.

Unfortunately, I know nothing about hacking, and do not understand enough about international social/political affairs. So I would like to know the implications of such a change, or if this change is even realistically plausible.

Here are some specifics that I would like to know:

  • What are the political implications? Do superpowers threaten to hack each other, like they threatened to bomb each other back in the old days?
  • How would civilian hackers or terrorist hackers come into play against these "government hackers"? Would they be marginalized? How?
  • In a civilization where cybernetics are commonplace, how would civilian populations be affected? (As the worldbuilder, I would prefer it if there was a rationale for why they are not affected, such as "downsizing" cybernetic society to be more analog and less hackable, or because such actions would be considered inhumane acts of war. However, I am not sure about the viabilities of these options.)
  • And, of course: how would this change the battlefield? Do jets and warships get phased out, as they too are hackable? What about tanks? Do infantry forces now need field hackers in addition to field medics? How might a major war break out in the first place?
    • As a key extension to the above question: What happens to nuclear weapons? Again as the worldbuilder, I would prefer that they go away somehow. Is it more realistic that they become obsolete (because, for instance, every nation's hacker forces have everyone's nuclear codes), or should they just be internationally agreed to never be used?

Again, I know next to nothing about this subject, so any answer that contributes to the reality check is much appreciated! Thank you!

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closed as off-topic by Burki, Mołot, Mormacil, Aify, Philipp Apr 11 '17 at 12:04

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "This question does not appear to be about worldbuilding, within the scope defined in the help center." – Mołot, Mormacil, Philipp
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd consider breaking this one up into multiple questions. Also some of this goes on to some extent today. $\endgroup$ – Joe Kissling Apr 11 '17 at 1:36
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    $\begingroup$ From what i know, mainland China already does this. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Apr 11 '17 at 4:18
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    $\begingroup$ US Cyber Command already exists. $\endgroup$ – SRM Apr 11 '17 at 6:27
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    $\begingroup$ Honestly, this is already a thing in most if not all militaries around the world. $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Apr 11 '17 at 6:50
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    $\begingroup$ Germany just added this to their military. You're about a 100 years late with your question. $\endgroup$ – DonQuiKong Apr 11 '17 at 7:12
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I highly recommend reading books by experts such as Kevin Mitnick. They can help you understand what is real hacking and what is not.

In the end, hacking comes down to a simple reality. There's two ways to look at any system we create:

  • There's what the system is supposed to do,
  • and there's what the system actually does.

Hacking abuses the fact that the two rarely, if ever, coincide.

Now much of what you need to research can be done by researching what we do today. We have military hacking today. It does real things. It's a great source of information. As a great example, take a look at Stuxnet. Stuxnet is the James Bond of hacking. It's the hack that made hacking look cool. You almost have to hum the Bond theme song while you read about it. But it also took millions of dollars and a lot of work to make it a reality. It's also worth noting that this attacked a nuclear enrichment facility but not a nuclear weapon. As a general principle, we're a big fan of making those things hard to hack. We spend the extra effort to makes sure what the nuclear weapon should do and what it actually does coincide quite nicely. In fact, come to think of it, that is true in general about nuclear weapons, not just their hackable software! We really like them to do what we want them to do.

Currently hacking is an attacker's game. The reason for this is because it's a target rich environment. Our understanding of cybersecurity started in a very idealistic manner. We generally connected things together without really worrying about the security of that choice. Well, we're in the real world now, and there are great efforts to turn that around. In 100 years, I would expect a much more mature cyberwarfare environment where attack and defense are more evenly matched.

As for whether any one system becomes obsolete, the answer is probably not. One of the major factors for whether a system is hackable or not is how connected it is to other systems. Hack those systems, and you get a toe-hold to attack this one. However, the current trend towards net-centric warfare suggests that we're getting pretty good at defending against hacking because we're comfortable with making those connections.

The real thing to remember in cyberwarfare, is that we really don't want to get hacked. We don't want the Holywood hack-ray to work. We want our devices to not be hackable. Thus, there's an arms race going on where we make systems more immune to hacking and they find better ways to hack it.

The one thing that is certain is that civilians will see less globalized networks like we see today. Right now, they're a tremendous weak point because, frankly, we designed the that way in the name of seamless communications. We will see more localized networking solutions with stuff like firewalls at each entry point to minimize the damage of an attack.

And always remember, the value of hacking is that it preserves something. The easiest way to hack a computer that you don't care to preserve is with a 2x4 (it's also one of the easier ways to hack a person in the same way). The easiest way to hack a building full of computers that you don't care about is with a few thousand pounds of explosives strapped to a penetrating bomb. If you're trying to delicately hack some enemy infantry's cybernetic enhancements, and they shoot you in the head while you're doing it, you lost.

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Something you might want to look at would be the Anime series of movies and TV Series called Ghost in the Shell. Lots of good stuff in there involving cyber security, hacking, military hacking and so on.

How can you apply this to your world?

1) Cyber security and nations hacking each other becomes the new cold war spying. James bond gets replaced by Darren Kitchen from Hak5. Remember, the purpose of a spy is to gain useful information. Nations are already hacking each other. In that regard, the cold war never really ended. Look at Stuxnet, and how Israel more or less used it to set back Iranian nuclear development.

2) Nukes don't go away. There are already very difficult protocols to take over and as each iteration of encryption gets more and more complex, the difficulty of stealing control of them does too. They are already kind of the pinnacle of destructive power.

3) Civilian Hackers are going to be on pretty much equal footing with government types. The difference is going to be a matter of budget. Just like it is between mercenaries and government military today. The difference will be bytes vs bullets.

4) Warships, aircraft, drones and other stuff will only get better, more reliable. Being hack able will be a concern, but think of it in terms of tumbler locks. We used padlocks to secure biplanes, more secure locks as things got more advanced, and so on.

5) Always consider that there are many analogs to power, but they all, ultimately pare down to force. The naked blade if you will. The ability to compel someone else to do what you want whether they want to or not.

The end result, not much is going to change, except the complexity of the tools involved

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It's already here. It's just not called the "Hacking Branch of the Military".

In the widest sense, hacking is gaining access to the enemy's communications. And that was happening before the use of telegram and radio; interception of enemy couriers.


For the Defence, may I introduce to you: Royal Corps of Signals.

It is responsible for installing, maintaining and operating all types of telecommunications equipment and information systems, providing command support to commanders and their headquarters, and conducting electronic warfare against enemy communications.


For the Offence, let me introduce to you: Intelligence Corps.

It is responsible for gathering, analysing and disseminating military intelligence and also for counter-intelligence and security.

Both don't care what kind of tool is used. As long as it gets the job done.


To answer your questions, by giving examples of how it is being used right now.

Q1 - What are the political implications?

A1 - It's treated mostly like the normal spy "cloak and dagger" stuff. But the USA did say this about this subject: U.S. issues first government guide on responding to cyber attacks.

Q2 - How would civilian hackers or terrorist hackers come into play against these "government hackers"?

A2 - Gary McKinnon can tell you that story better then I do. Even though he does not seem to be a terrorist...

Q3 - In a civilization where cybernetics are commonplace, how would civilian populations be affected?

A3 - They will need to be educated on the vulnerabilities. Sometime digital is not the best option. Like with voting.

Germany ended electronic voting in 2009, with the German Federal Constitutional Court finding that the inability to have meaningful public scrutiny meant that electronic voting was unconstitutional.

Q4 - And, of course: how would this change the battlefield?

A4 - You have Blue Force Tracking. Every big military will have something like it. If you can hack into that, you know way to much.

Q4B - What happens to nuclear weapons?

A4B - They will not go away. They will be the among the hardest things to hack, as they are now. Probably not connected to the internet.

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Golden rules

  1. Hacking requires some sort of connection to the target device.
  2. You must know (or guess) the 'language' of the target device.

Electronic devices are always prone to EMP and connected devices are prone to communication interception, spoofing, and interruption. With these in mind, you could develop a basis to your world hacking warfare.

What are the political implications?

At peace times, there will be not much change from our world today: there are already cyber-war going on constantly from governmental cyber-agents. Most of the operations are concealed from the world news, so common people are oblivious of the ongoing war.

What is the objective? Information. Any information, and if you are lucky enough to find a critical super-secret information (like, your rival is secretly doing questionable human experiment), you could hold this information hostage as leverage on diplomatic negotiations. No one said diplomacy is a 'peaceful approach'.

If the nations concerned are already at war, then it will become more complicated. Hacking enemy soldiers' cybernetic enhancements may be done, especially tactical googles supplying important information during a special ops in the enemy territory: it will be vulnerable to injected fake intelligence.

On bigger picture, they may attempt to cripple each others communication. The means used are depending if they are still honoring anti-nuke or anti-biological weapon treaty. They might only use some sort of EMP pulse, or might resort to hacking the missile launch codes to use it against the enemy themselves (note that this should be hard).

How would civilian hackers or terrorist hackers come into play against these "government hackers"?

They might provide mild to severe nuisance to both governments.

In peaceful situation, this will make diplomatic relationship difficult, because government has no direct control of their "allied" hackers. The government system would also waste resources in defending against "enemy" hackers. Non-governmental hackers would play a significant role if they are united against a nation. United they stand, divided they fall.

In a civilization where cybernetics are commonplace, how would civilian populations be affected?

Depending on what you mean with cybernetics.

You might talk about cybernetic enhancements. There are plenty of stories about that, so I don't feel have to explain much, but I'll tell you my favorite.

There will be two different extremities (sounds just like our society always does, right) between "pure" human and those embracing enhancements to the point they are more fit to be called "robot" than "cyborgs".

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You're living in it

1) "What are the political implications?"

2016 is the first year in which hacking intersected with mainstream politics. The US Democrat party got their email hacked and leaked to damaging effect. It's not yet proven who's responsible but an increasing amount of evidence is being amassed against Russia.

Intelligence services have interfered in the politics of foreign countries before, all over the world during the Cold War, but this brings it out into the open. Electronic communications and political advertising on social media is now critical to electoral politics, and therefore a target for hackers.

It's worth considering whether having full-time paid trolls or "fake news" operations counts as "hacking". Snow Crash passim, this is effectively hacking the wetware of humans by exploiting their weaknesses.

2) "How would civilian hackers or terrorist hackers come into play against these "government hackers"? Would they be marginalized? How?"

The military pretend to be civilians for deniability. The civilians pretend to be military because it sounds cool. The terrorists go around defacing web sites. The military launch a bunch of missiles and declare anyone killed to have been a terrorist. Everyone is lying to everyone else, and possibly themselves.

Many of the key hacks are developed independently and sold on the black market. Many of the non-government hackers thus have greater pay and status than the government hackers. We haven't yet seen airstrike retaliation for selling hacks to the other side, but surely it will happen soon.

(The typical "hacker" social and behavioural profile tends to disqualify people from government jobs, and the pay tends to be terrible. So they have to resort to freelancers.)

Civilian government is likely to be marginalized. Democracy is vulnerable to memetic hacking.

3) "In a civilization where cybernetics are commonplace, how would civilian populations be affected? (As the worldbuilder, I would prefer it if there was a rationale for why they are not affected, such as "downsizing" cybernetic society to be more analog and less hackable, or because such actions would be considered inhumane acts of war. However, I am not sure about the viabilities of these options.)"

So long as they're not networked they're probably safe, surprisingly.

4) And, of course: how would this change the battlefield? Do jets and warships get phased out, as they too are hackable? What about tanks? Do infantry forces now need field hackers in addition to field medics? How might a major war break out in the first place?

Hacking can be done from anywhere - so the front line is everywhere. Actual hackers will be key assets hidden away somewhere, not on the pointy end of the war.

War is fought by weaponising population. The future is deniable warfare, like the Russian takeover of eastern Ukraine. Anything that looks like a military on TV isn't deniable enough. So instead you'll see a morass of overlapping, shifting forces like in Syria, with no military/civilian distinction.

Any vehicle can be a bomb, or driven into a crowd to kill. Any civilian could be a suicide bomber or mass shooter in waiting. A city in this kind of future war looks like many present-day middle eastern cities: everyone trying to go about their normal life despite one or more huge explosions in the city every day.

In this kind of environment, tanks, planes and ships retain their power, but lose their targeting. Nobody knows who to shoot at any more, and every target causes a row over civilian casualties.

5) As a key extension to the above question: What happens to nuclear weapons? Again as the worldbuilder, I would prefer that they go away somehow. Is it more realistic that they become obsolete (because, for instance, every nation's hacker forces have everyone's nuclear codes), or should they just be internationally agreed to never be used?

Mutually-assured-destruction seems to be holding so far. I think international agreement against first use will hold.

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The surest way to prevent hacking is to make a connection impossible. To prevent outside hack attacks, do not let outside access.

In a combat situation, tanks and other vehicles could send information to a comm link, but be designed to not allow external control of the equipment. Any information sent to the tank would need to stay separate from the direct control of the tank.

Now, the effective hacker could send false information, such as identifying friendlies as targets and vice versa.

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This is set in the near future (perhaps ~100 years?) of our Earth, or at least, something very closely resembling our Earth. In this future setting, computers and wireless technology are everywhere.

Presumably they are 120 years behind us then, as most of your questions describe the state of this world in the 1990s.

At some point, the global powers realize that the new age of technology is undeniably permeating the frontier of warfare, and add a fully fledged "hacking" branch to their military forces.

In the UK this was covered mostly by special forces, but about ten years ago the threat had grown such that a separate Cyber Reserve was founded. This is separate/in addition to conventional electronic warfare/signals intelligence groups, which have been around much longer.

from a cybersecurity standpoint, it is always easier to attack than to defend. (is this accurate?)

It is hard to both defend and be widely accessible.

What are the political implications? Do superpowers threaten to hack each other, like they threatened to bomb each other back in the old days?

In the past few years, the USA have hacked Iran's nuclear weapons programme, and Russia appear to have hacked the USA's election.

Are you writing utopian SciFi?

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