Plan X: How the Army Will Make Cyberattacks as Easy as a Video Game

If you've seen a movie at all in the past 20 years, the word "hackers" probably brings to mind something along the lines of sweaty nerds hunched over keyboards as they pour through Matrix-style lines of code. The Pentagon's newest project, though, could turn that stereotype on its head—and make sending out deadly cyberattacks just as easy as pulling a trigger.

Currently, any sort of military cyberattack can take months to plan and carry the danger of highly uncertain consequences. Darpa's new program (codenamed Plan X) wants to effectively industrialize the process by creating predictable, easy-to-execute cyber attacks, all pre-packaged for your hacking needs.

This new breed of hackers won't need to have any real knowledge of network topologies on a global scale, much less understand how the cyberattack was even made. According to Dan Roelker, the cybersecurity specialist who came up with Plan X and joined Darpa to turn it into a reality:

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.

Using a Samsung SUR40 Touch Table, network topologies are displayed "like constellations of stars," allowing you to visualize and choose exactly where you want to send the attack. According to Wired, who was given a preview of the still-in-development system, tapping on red star that symbolizes the botnet's command-and-control server brings up a pop up menu that lets you choose the type of attack. Each attack comes with a literal cost that's displayed using a correlating number. Just like a video game.

There's even a set playbook of sorts that, depending on the mission, contains pre-determined strategies to make the easiest, deadliest cyberattack possible. Roekler acknowledges the video game correlation, admitting that it's "like Madden Football. You might have a running play a passing play, a fake… If we do the same type of activities, is there some way to build a template and then just allow a planner to look through all the different plays they have."

At the end of the year, Darpa plans to introduce a Plan X software developers kit, which could effectively create an app market for hackers. While Rooelker told Wired that wasn't his intention, it's hard not to see a correlation between what he refers to as an "ecosystem of cyberwar programs [that] will grow around Plan X" and, say, Apple's App Store.

And that prospect is more than a little disconcerting. Because who knows—one day soon, you might find yourself able to download deadly cyberattacks and Angry Birds in one fell swoop. [Wired]