The target computer is picked. The order to strike has been given. All it takes is a finger swipe and a few taps of the touchscreen, and the cyberattack is prepped to begin.
For the last year, the Pentagon’s top technologists have been working on a program that will make cyberwarfare relatively easy. It’s called Plan X. And if this demo looks like a videogame or sci-fi movie or a sleek Silicon Valley production, that’s no accident. It was built by the designers behind some of Apple’s most famous computers — with assistance from the illustrators who helped bring Transformers to the silver screen.
Today, destructive cyberattacks — ones that cause servers to fry, radars to go dark, or centrifuges to spin out of control — have been assembled by relatively small teams of hackers. They’re ordered at the highest levels of government. They take months to plan. Their effects can be uncertain, despite all the preparation. (Insiders believe, for example, that the biggest network intrusion in the Pentagon’s history may have been an accidental infection, not a deliberate hack.)
With Plan X, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking to change all that. It wants munitions made of 1s and 0s to be as simple to launch as ones made of metal and explosives. It wants cyberattack stratagems to be as predictable as any war plan can be. It wants to move past the artisanal era of hacking, and turn cyberwarfare into an industrial effort. Across the U.S. government, there are all kinds of projects to develop America’s network offense. None are quite like this.
“Plan X is a program that is specifically working towards building the technology infrastructure that would allow cyber offense to move from the world we’re in today — where it’s a fine, handcrafted capability that requires exquisite authorities to do anything… to a future where cyber is a capability like other weapons,” Darpa director Arati Prabhakar told reporters last month. “A military operator can design and deploy a cyber effect, know what it’s going to accomplish… and take an appropriate level of action.”
But you can’t expect the average officer to be able to understand the logical topology of a global network-of-networks. You can’t expect him to know whether its better to hook a rootkit into a machine’s kernel or its firmware. If cyberwar is going to be routine, Darpa believes, the digital battlefield has to be as easy to navigate as an iPhone. The attacks have to be as easy to launch as an Angry Bird.
“Say you’re playing World of Warcraft, and you’ve got this type of sword, +5 or whatever. You don’t necessarily know what spells were used to create that sword, right? You just know it has these attributes and it helps you in this way. It’s the same type of concept. You don’t need the technical details,” says Dan Roelker, the cybersecurity specialist who helped develop some of the world’s most widely-used intrusion detection software, came up with the idea for Plan X, and joined Darpa to make it happen.