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Political Science’s Martinez Looking At “Cyberwar In Space”

Published: September 17, 2012

Political Science’s Larry Martinez, an expert in cyberwar, took his research to Prague in the Czech Republic in June to attend a meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Martinez, a member of the university since 1988, is working on a book titled Cyberwar in Space that asks how the growing dependence of nations’ military establishments on space-based Internet and navigation systems will shift global strategic conflict into outer space. Wikileaks, Stuxnet, and this summer’s $400 million software glitch that nearly sank a Wall Street high-frequency trading firm are recent examples of why Internet-dependent nations are taking cyber-conflict and cyberwar seriously. While many experts are skeptical about one nation’s ability to strategically defeat another through cyberwar, cyber-conflict is a daily occurrence between firms seeking to steal corporate secrets from their competitors, malevolent hackers and directed military attacks on opponents’ command and control computers. Consumers worldwide are also involved. “With over a billion mobile telephones that simultaneously access the Internet and space-based GPS navigation systems, the potential for disruption from cyber-conflict in space is almost unlimited,” Martinez said.

ICANN is the nearest thing to an international regulator of the unruly “adolescent” Internet. A corporation licensed under the laws of California, it nonetheless has an increasingly important international role as the organization that coordinates web addresses for billions of users across the globe. “To reach another person on the Internet you have to type an address into your computer — a name or a number,” he explained. “That address must be unique so computers know where to find each other. ICANN coordinates these unique identifiers across the world. Without that coordination, we wouldn’t have a global Internet.”

It makes many nations uncomfortable knowing that a crucial part of their military, banking and telecommunications infrastructure is dependent on a California corporation. And even more so, Martinez explained, “when it comes to the potential for cyber-conflict or cyberwar.” Cyber-security was a major topic for ICANN’s meeting agenda in Prague as the multi-stakeholder organization (its discussions include Internet users, providers, and governments) grappled with a widening array of security threats involved with web addressing—i.e., translating a web address to a numerical Internet address.

For instance, some entities have learned how to “spoof” an Internet address such as a bank’s address. “They make you think you are logging into your bank’s website. You are not,” he said. “I want to know what measures are required to protect the authenticity of web addresses. It is increasingly possible to paralyze a country’s banking, transportation and governance infrastructures by disabling their ability to access authentic Web addresses. With that in mind, ICANN has sponsored a software development project called Domain Name System Security (DNSSEC) that is meant to deal with malicious hacking in cyber conflicts.”

Conferences like ICANN’s offer rare opportunities to talk to the people behind the decisions. “In 2011, I attended an ICANN meeting in San Francisco where I talked with an Egyptian telecommunications engineer who explained how Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was able so quickly to completely shut down the Internet during that country’s Arab Spring revolution. Conversations with these and other experts are a vital part of my research into cyber-conflict and cyberwar,” Martinez said.

Examining conflict in both cyberspace and outer space is a unique aspect of Martinez’s research, but one that is already seeing concrete relevance. Military establishments, not only in the U.S., but among the growing number of primarily European and Asian space-faring nations, are particularly concerned about the possibility of a “low-tech” threat posed by space debris against satellites.

“It doesn’t take much to disable one,” he explained. “An orbiting paint chip hitting at many thousands of miles an hour can knock one out. Look at the paint flecks NASA found embedded in the windows of the space shuttle. Those flecks traveled at thousands of miles an hour. For a space-walking astronaut, such an encounter could quickly become deadly. I am currently writing the book’s chapters on how space debris should now be thought of as a cyber-weapon against satellites. North Korea may not be as scientifically advanced as some of its neighbors but they can blow up a cheap rocket booster to create a debris cloud capable of incapacitating billions of dollars’ worth of navigation or communication satellites. Space debris could be the poor man’s `Star Wars,’ signaling a fundamental shift of global strategic conflict into the cyber-space realm.”

Larry Martinez (front row center) takes in a lecture during during a meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in Prague.

The concept of a cyberwar in space barely existed as a topic 20 years ago. The advent of space debris as a threat is more recent still. But, “as more and more nations loft growing flotillas of Internet and navigation satellites into orbit, the danger of collisions between operating and dead satellites rises,” he said. “Chinese and American anti-satellite tests created space debris. There was a collision between a dead Russian satellite and a multi-million-dollar U.S. satellite not long ago. Meanwhile, our dependence on satellites continues to grow. Look at how Hurricane Isaac was tracked from space. All that could be blacked out by one of a thousand fragments from an exploded North Korean booster rocket. Everybody is taking this topic seriously today.”

For every cyberwar offense, there is cyberwar defense. “There are outer-space tactics against debris clouds,” he said. “For one thing, you can move out of the way. The International Space Station moves every few weeks just to escape debris. Another tactic is to clean space. There currently exist plans to ‘vacuum space.’ If the pieces are big enough to be targeted by radar, they could be vaporized by lasers.”

Martinez’ interest in cyber security began with earning his ham radio operator’s license at age 14. “Nowadays, everybody runs around with a ham radio in their pockets,” he laughed. “Everybody has become a ham radio operator via smartphones as they talk about their iPhone’s signal dropping out.” To write his doctoral dissertation on communication satellites, he used his ham radio background during a year at UC Santa Barbara spent studying engineering manuals to understand the entire chain of radio and data linkages between ground stations and orbiting satellites. He communicates his concern for cybersecurity to his POSC 388 “Cyberspace Citizenship” students when he asks them to conduct field research about the cyber-vulnerability of Long Beach Internet users. Last semester, his students conducted their own neighborhood measurements of locked and unlocked Wi-Fi routers using their own smartphones. Results of the field research showed that cyber-security concerns have prompted Internet service providers to lockdown the Wi-Fi routers. “Real progress has been made,” Martinez reports.

Martinez sees the issue of cyber security continuing to dominate international politics. “This December, there will be an international treaty conference in Dubai where many nations desire treaty language to preserve the right of nations to manage their online infrastructure as a source of governmental revenue. But what is a government’s stake in all this beyond the purely financial?” he asked. “My research is showing that cyber-conflict and cyberwar are moving the world’s governance of these technologies from very visible law-based treaties to self-enforcing ad hoc agreements that put governments once more in charge of the Internet in their countries. Treaties force signatories to expose themselves to international inspection. Proprietary industrial data is made public. Most nations prefer self-policing where every country swears to police their own cyberspace security. The fly in the ointment is the wild card of growing dependency of space telecommunications satellites to cyberwar, whether electromagnetic or debris. My advice—stay tuned.”