At the height of the cold war, the USSR tested a single thermonuclear weapon with a yield equal to fifty million tons of TNT. In 1985, as the number of nuclear weapons peaked, a total of 65,000 existed at various levels of readiness.
In this context, the following statement from this essay occupies a special place among the polemical statements I have had the pleasure of reading:
The cyber-war mirrors the nuclear challenge in terms of the potential economic and psychological effects.When I read that, I had to wonder who spiked the author's water supply with LSD. As a computer professional, I have no doubt that a significant cyber attack would have unsettling effects. Getting money from a bank would prove difficult. The attack would affect infrastructure, from the water supply to roads, in unpredictable ways. In economic life, a cyber attack would have a dire effect;. it would diminish business confidence and could easily trigger a recession. At worst, cyber attacks on industrial process control systems could lead to serious spills of toxic or even radioactive waste. We should not take these risks lightly.
But the worst imaginable cyber attack would lead to a major disaster, not one beyond comprehension; we have experienced disasters on this scale before. It took just one nuclear weapon to end one hundred thousand lives at Hiroshima. Unleashing forty to sixty thousand of them would have created a catastrophe such as humanity has no memory of in all our recorded history. Equating these two possible events, at any level, completely ignores reality.
Glenn Greenwald rightly objects to the shadow-government agenda this kind of hyperbole aims to promote. I expect plenty of civil society organizations will stand up to defend freedom in cyberspace. Even if it does not succeed, however, exaggeration of this kind does harm by subtly eroding our sense of proportion. Accepting that political argument has no necessary relationship to reality makes it harder to perform the essential task of a democracy: governing ourselves.