Cyber Warfare: The New Weapon of Mass Destruction
While the general public still regards nuclear war as the most feared mode of armed conflict, cyber warfare has silently become, perhaps, the biggest existential threat to nation-states. Gone are the days of stockpiling nuclear warheads at breakneck speed to secure global dominance; the world’s next hegemon is almost certain to be the nation boasting the most sophisticated hackers. Despite lacking the apocalyptic imagery associated with stereotypical doomsday scenarios, cyber warfare can collapse infrastructure, devastate political systems, and cripple economies in ways arguably more destructive than even nuclear or biological warfare.
Cyber warfare is typically understood to describe politically-motivated, computer-based conflict between nation-state actors. However, due to the difficulty inherent in conclusively linking attacks to a nation-state, cyber-attacks carried out by terrorist or hacker groups also falls under the umbrella of cyber warfare if the attack was orchestrated to advance a nation’s goals. The aim of these attacks is to damage, disrupt, or surveil the political activities of a nation-state for strategic or military advantage. Cyber warfare generally presents three major types of threats: cyberattacks, cyber espionage, and propaganda. Each of these threats can, and often are, used to facilitate one of the other threats.
Cyberattacks are a component of cyber warfare primarily concerned with direct damage or disruption. Cyberattacks can assume various forms including malware, viruses, and computer worms. These malicious programs do more than just slow down the computers they infect, in fact, modern cyberattacks seek to wreak havoc on governments by targeting their critical infrastructure. This critical infrastructure includes transportation systems, water supplies, fuel systems, military, power grids, hospitals and critical manufacturing. With the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) and critical systems becoming increasingly connected to the internet, the threat of cyberattacks grows as vulnerabilities become more numerous. Undoubtedly, cyberattacks will continue to be in coordination with conventional warfare efforts such as disrupting communication between government officials and the theft of classified documents.
While the origin is unknown beyond rumor, the 2009 deployment of a malicious computer virus called “Stuxnet” is the first believed cyber-weapon to cause significant physical damage to its target. Widely believed to be the brainchild of the U.S., the Stuxnet virus caused centrifuges at uranium-enrichment facilities in Iran to self destruct. The sabotage of these machines allegedly led to a 30% decline in centrifuge operational capacity and may have destroyed up to 10% of Iran’s centrifuges in Nantanz within the first year of the attack. If the suppositions surrounding Stuxnet are to be accepted, the success of the worm may have proved a bitter-sweet victory for the U.S. as its astounding effectiveness is almost certainly what inspired Iran and other world powers to subsequently develop their own cyber-weapons.
In May 2014, a Russia-based hacking group disabled Ukraine’s election commission’s system, including its backup system just days before Ukraine’s presidential election. The cyberattack was designed to damage the nationalist candidate while helping the pro-Russian candidate. Fortunately for Ukraine, computer experts were able to repair the system before the election. One year later, German parliament suffered an attack suspected to have been perpetrated by members of the Russian secret services. The attack infected 20,000 computers used by German politicians and officials; classified data was stolen.
In what is the known as the first successful cyber-attack on a power grid, a Russian hacker group called “Sandworm” caused temporary blackouts in Ukraine during an ongoing military confrontation on December 23, 2015. The United States federal government has conceded that the electric power grid is vulnerable to cyberattacks and in April 2009, reports surfaced that the U.S. electrical grid had been penetrated by China and Russia. According to former and current national security officials, these intrusions left behind software that could be used to disrupt the system.
Denial-of-service attacks (DoS attacks) and distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS attacks) are other types of cyberattacks where perpetrators seek to make machines or networks unavailable to intended users. Denial of service attacks are done by inundating the intended machine or network with requests. This flooding of requests are done with the intent to overload the targeted system to the point that some or all legitimate requests are unable to be fulfilled. While DoS and DDoS attacks usually target sites or network resources hosted on high-profile web servers such as credit card payment gateways and banks, they can also be used to disrupt military communication and information gathering. In March 2014, the Russian government allegedly executed a DDoS attack that disrupted the internet in Ukraine, enabling pro-Russian rebels to take control of Crimea.
Cyber espionage, or cyber spying constitutes the stealing of classified or secret government information through the use of malicious software for the political, economic, or military advantage of a another nation-state. Cyber espionage operations, like non-cyber espionage is typically illegal in the victim country while perfectly legal and even supported by the aggressor country. In recent years the U.S. government has warned of an emerging international cyber espionage campaign with ties to both the Chinese and Russian government. In 2015, hackers backed by the Chinese government were accused of breaching the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s website to steal data on approximately 22 million current and former employees of the U.S. government. The Chinese have also been involved in the cyber theft of U.S. military aircraft designs. Foreign officials from China, Russia, and other nations have accused the U.S. of running the longest-running and most pervasive cyber espionage operation.
Cyber Propaganda and Disinformation Campaigns
In addition to cyberattacks and cyber espionage, threat actors have also been increasingly employing the use of cyber propaganda. The objective of this multi-faceted pillar of cyber warfare is to pervade trusted sources and distract public opinion by spreading disinformation through the press. Social media manipulation and amplification of “fake news” through targeted ads, bots, troll farms, and “tainted leaks” (which describe the intentional weaving of false information into a greater set of legitimate, stolen information) are also critical components of cyber propaganda. In concert with the objective of exploiting societal divisions, aggressors seek to sow discord and undermine traditionally accepted democratic values by polarizing political discussion and creating an atmosphere of distrust among the public. By manipulating the tenor of political discourse, these campaigns look to influence the outcome of elections and policy.
Cyber propaganda and digital disinformation campaigns entered the public conscience in 2016 when Kremlin-backed hackers transmitted thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to WikiLeaks in an attempt to interfere with the US presidential elections. According to the U.S. Intelligence Community the hack and accompanying wave of online propaganda were a part of a broader information warfare strategy devised by Russia to erode faith in US political institutions. The attack brought to light similar attempts by the Russians that included data leaks, spear-phishing campaigns, and controversial leaks surrounding political events in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries around the world.
Due to the nature of cyber propaganda, identifying and protecting against it can prove to be a difficult task. Nation-states employing cyber propaganda tactics seek to make the public question the trustworthiness of the media by exploiting the fact that, in rushing to be the first to break important news stories, the media often fails to devote the sufficient time necessary to thoroughly fact-check information and vet sources.
The Cyber Warfare Era
We are at the dawn of a new era in strategic competition. Cyber warfare has already proven calamitous despite being in its technological infancy. As nation-states improve their technical strategies and develop more sophisticated code, the threat to democratic processes, privacy, and critical infrastructure increases exponentially. This threat is made even more ominous when considering the startling advances being made in the field of artificial intelligence. Societies must develop defenses against cyber-attacks, specifically those that take aim at democratic institutions and processes. Just as the Unites States’ superior arsenal of nuclear weapons made it the unquestioned global power for several decades, in the near future the race for world leader will be won by the nation most adept in the art of cyber warfare.