Numerous malicious attacks on computers and mobile devices as well as networks of important entities have recently made the news and have brought back to the surface the debate on cyber warfare and the dangerousness of cyber weapons.
The increasing dependence on the Internet and the recent spur of attacks are beginning to create greater concern.
The fear is not just based on the possibility that a cyber attack could simply cause the non-availability of information and services we are now accustomed to. The Internet has not just reshaped the way we obtain news, communicate with others, take care of our finances, watch TV and listen to music, but it is also permeating other essential fields of our lives.
From power smart grids to the “Internet of Things,” the potential targets of cyber warriors are now multiple and the possible consequences catastrophic. Premeditated, politically or socially motivated attacks against a computer-dependent society could be orchestrated by foreign powers and affect nations at any level: from the availability of utilities, to denied access to important financial and medical information, to causing a significant impact on national GDPs.
This blog will explore the concept of cyber warfare and cyber weapons, plus recount latest happenings and discuss whether the danger is real.
Cyber Warfare and Cyber Weapons
The definition of cyber warfare and cyber weapons is not as clear-cut as it might seem. Distinguishing these attacks from simple cyber crimes is essential to define rules of engagements by countries and to establish what should be considered a direct act of war against the sovereignty and wellbeing of a state.
According to the Tallin Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare – a study commissioned by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence that is not considered a legally binging document – cyber weapons are cyber means of warfare designed, used or intended to cause either injury or death of people or damage to or destruction of objects.
Without a globally recognized definition, however, it is hard to strictly define and recognize true acts of cyber warfare, prevent attacks, hold entities accountable and define legal responses. The inability to agree to basic notions is a considerable weakness in the international arena and leaves space to much uncertainty and endless possibilities for nations beginning to employ these warfare techniques.
Several definitions have been given by scholars, but, in general, a cyber weapon is intuitively considered any software, virus, and intrusion device that can disrupt critical infrastructures of other countries, from military defense systems to communications to electric power smart grids to financial systems and air traffic control.
Debates have been rising on the possibility to consider cyber weapons tools used not only to directly impair systems but also to spy on nations through cyber espionage. Again, the lack of a globally-recognized legal definition doesn’t help.
Have cyber weapons ever been deployed? You may recognize an incident that happened in 2009, the first known use of a cyber weapon: Stuxnet. It was a complex piece of malware believed to be an example of government cyber weapon aimed at severely disrupting the Iranian nuclear program. The paternity of the attack has been a source of debate, but in the end, it was believed to be a joint US/Israel operation. Stuxnet targeted a plant in Natanz, Iran. By turning off valves and impairing centrifuges, equipment was damaged and the Iranian uranium enrichment program effectively slowed down.
However, Stuxnet might have not even been the first cyber war tool directed toward Iran. Flame, another powerful malware that masqueraded itself as a routine Microsoft software update, had already been used to map and monitor Iranian networks and collect critical information.
Is a Cyber World War a Concern?
A 2013 report by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper explained that the possibility of a major cyber attack to US critical infrastructures causing a long-term and widespread disruption of services by major players like Russia and China is remote. However, smaller scale attacks by smaller states or non-state entities seem to be a concern. According to the report, “less advanced but highly motivated actors could access some poorly protected US networks that control core functions, such as power generation, during the next two years, although their ability to leverage that access to cause high-impact, systemic disruptions will probably be limited. At the same time, there is a risk that unsophisticated attacks would have significant outcomes due to unexpected system configurations and mistakes, or that vulnerability at one node might spill over and contaminate other parts of a networked system.”
This may not come as a surprise to anyone, but any telecommunications infrastructure attack could cause enough harm to generate fear. Every government or corporations entire infrastructure, let alone the public at large, may be at stake.
Can digital attacks really have tangible effects? Absolutely. An oil pipeline in Turkey was cyber attacked and exploded in 2008. The pipeline was super-pressurized and alarms were shut off. By hacking security cameras, attackers (allegedly Russian) were able to hide the blast from the control room that, unaware, was unable to respond promptly. Another attack to a German steel company demonstrated how, by simply infiltrating the information systems running the plant, hackers could cause major damage.
Although not a single Internet successful attack has been recognized as directed by a foreign terror organization against the United States homeland, there have been instances of intrusions intended to inflict significant harm on the American government or state agency, as well as US businesses. Last November, there was an intrusion into the networks of the Department of the State that led to the unclassified email system shutdown. Carol Morello, the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post who covered the affair, noted the activity was related to hacking of White House computers reported a month prior, and to security breaches that occurred at both the U.S. Postal Service and the National Weather Service. Those incidents pointed to Russian hackers as prime suspects; the perpetrators were believed to be working directly for the Russian government. Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) is another recent case; its networks were infected in a November 2014 incident. According to the FBI, the occurrence resembled past cyber efforts by North Korea.
What makes a cyber warfare attack appealing? Mainly the fact that it can come at little or no cost for the perpetrator. An attacker with great technical capabilities can create disruption by using a single computer wherever he or she is located. While the use of conventional weapons requires expensive manufacturing and physical travel to target locations, cyber attacks can be conducted from anywhere. Traditional weapons have a cost that might be prohibitive for many and are hard to transport (or deliver) in secrecy. In other cases, attacks might require the sacrifice of the offenders. Cyber attacks are quick, can be equally destructive and can definitely be inexpensive to execute.
According to Amy Chang, research associate at the Center for a New American Security, “Cyber warfare is a great alternative to conventional weapons. […] It is cheaper for and far more accessible to these small nation-states. It allows these countries to pull off attacks without as much risk of getting caught and without the repercussions when they are.”
Accountability is hard to prove when cyber weapons are used. By using several proxies or infecting computers indirectly, it is difficult to trace back to a particular malicious hacker or organization on any form of attacks. And even if a culprit is found, it is hard to accuse a nation of a deliberate act of war, especially due to lack of a legal framework.
The problem today is that we live in a high-tech world of uncertainty where people are not well trained and equipped for these new threats that can disrupt communications, and network traffic to and from websites and can potentially paralyze Internet service providers (ISPs) at the international level across national borders. So, in the face of constant security threats, there is a need for all to fully understand how to handle cyber security issues and cyber war and how to mitigate risks and minimize the damage, as best as possible if the circumstances arise.
Next week, Part 2 which looks at cyberspace and a unique set of security issues.
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