Cyber Warfare: Modern Front-lines

Caleb Townsend
Staff Writer United States Cybersecurity Magazine


Cyber Warfare is a broad term that defines a nation state sanctioned attack on a computer system of another country. One accomplishes this by means of hacking, computer viruses, and the like.

Cyber Warfare: First as a Term, Then as a Threat

However, in some respects, cyber warfare is a hard term to fully define. Many often view the term itself is as a misnomer, due to the fact that a full out cyber war has not happened before. In fact, offensive cyber actions committed in history have been rejected and disavowed by those involved. Additionally, many experts question what full out cyber warfare would even look like.

However, despite these misgivings, a wide range of states, including the United States, Russia, China, Iran, and Vietnam have offensive and defensive cybersecurity operations and capabilities. Actors will often leverage these threats that, in the very least, support more traditional means of warfare.

Common Cyber Warfare Threats

Sabotage

When thinking of a cyber threat, one often hears about credit cards being stolen, websites going down, or information being sold on the dark web. However, sabotage in the cyber warfare sense involves targeting computers, satellites, or infrastructures that people rely on. Indeed, sabotage causes mass panic and disruption.

Some common targets include power grids, water systems, financial systems, etc. One notable example is Stuxnet. Stuxnet was a malicious computer worm that was used by the American military as part of an operation entitled Operation Olympic Game. The worm infiltrated factory computers and was intended to sabotage Iran’s uranium enrichment facility. Therefore, New York Times reported that Suxnet is “The first attack on critical industrial infrastructure that sits at the foundation of modern economies.”

Espionage

Nobody regards most forms of espionage, cyber or not, as cyber warfare in the traditional sense. However, when espionage exposes major nation state powers, reacting forces often describe said espionage as attack. As a result, tensions will heighten between the warring states. Therefore, espionage is often known as a “soft threat”, one that usually leads to larger threats.

Some known examples include America spying on other countries, as revealed by Edward Snowden or the NSA’s spying on Angela Merkel. Additionally, the Office of Personnel Management Data Breach and Titan Rain are both solid examples of Chine engaging in corporate espionage.

Denial-of-Service Attack

A Denial-of-Service (DoS) attack occurs when legitimate users are unable to access information or other network resources. This act of cyber warfare targets high profile services such as banking and credit card companies.

Often, rival governments will employ a DoS attack in order to take down a competitor’s website. However, in more extreme cases, a state-sanctioned DoS could cripple an entire web of infrastructures. In many cases, DoS attacks link to ransomware implementations.

Propaganda

Much like espionage, propaganda is a “soft threat” or second tier form of cyber warfare. Propaganda is a concerted effort to control public perception on a topic by controlling the types of media that people see. Propaganda is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, every country uses propaganda of some sort.

Using WW2 and America as an example, Disney used to put out anti-nazi cartoons starring Donald Duck. In addition, cartoonists like Dr. Seuss and comic strips like Little Orphan Annie, and Superman would attempt to sway public opinion on the war. Even commercials of the time urged the public to buy war bonds.

However, as time progresses, propaganda becomes more subtle and more insidious. In fact, more serious cases of social media manipulation, fake news websites, and online censorship qualify as a form of psychological warfare. These methods help create a distrust in the government. Additionally, they can influence elections and warp infrastructure. However, most notably, propaganda delegitimizes social and political structures upon which cyber defenses rely on.

Motivations Behind an Attack

There are many sources, targets, and motivations behind cyber warfare. Some of the more common motivations for an attack are:

Military

Cyber warfare, or in the very least, the threat of cyber warfare, is a common talking point when forming modern military strategy. In fact, it is common enough that in 2009, the military established the United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) as one of the ten unified commands of the Department of Defense. Due to the lack of full blown acts of cyber warfare, as well as the relatively recent nature of these threats, policy is difficult to define and determine. Indeed, many of the cyber strategies the military drafts are simply theoretical.

However, jobs within cyber warfare branches have become very popular, and contribute to the cybersecurity job boom that articles are always referencing.

Civilian Based Attacks

The internet is one large target for all nation state based attacks. The backbone of most modern systems require an internet connection, web servers, client server systems, communication link, etc. Laptops, desktops, and cellphones additionally are common targets for hackers and bad actors.

However, some more serious threats in the future include hacking into self-driving cars and other automated systems, electric grids, and major telecommunication systems. Our reliance on automation and computerization will only serve to exacerbate these threats.

Hacktivism

Many acts of cyber warfare come from a politically motivated agenda. Indeed, often acts of activism will be confused for cyber warfare. The hacking is actually coming from small protest groups, rather than nation state actors. Hacktivists will often participate in classic methods of disruption. Some examples include DoS or sabotage in order to bring attention to their cause or spread their ideology.

Groups like Anonymous, Lizard Squad, and Masters of Deception have helped to form a set of stereotypes and mixed reception amongst civilians. Hacktivist often use sites like Wikileaks to anonymously post information in favor of their ideas and beliefs, to mixed reception often.

Conclusion

Cyber warfare is a relatively new concept, one that we have only begun to see play out. As we move forward, we will need to address many strategic and ethical questions that arise as we work to find the line between cyber defense and humans rights violations. Cyberspace is uncharted territories and we will undoubtedly find ourselves in high stress situations. However, through these attacks, as well as open and informed dialogue, we can work together to establish new policies moving forward.


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