Cyberwarfare and cyberespionage evoke the image of a dark room, illuminated by the glow of monitors and the beeping lights of tower servers. Instead of soldiers, there are hackers; cloaked in darkness as they type on keyboards. With one stroke they can disable traffic lights, shut down a city’s power supply and with a string of code, they would bring an entire nation to its knees.
While the abovementioned sounds fanciful – a product of a Hollywood action film even, the threat is real.
Despite the visual conceits, cyberwarfare is as serious as one would imagine. Furthermore, such a scenario is no longer just a narrative for a novel, but a reality.
Here’s a brief run down on cyberwarfare history:
- An early case occurred during the Georgia-Russian war of 2008. Georgia was at that time a country which had only begun developing its online infrastructure. In July 2008, Georgia’s communications and government websites were suddenly taken down by numerous Distribution Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks. Shortly after the cyberattack, Russia began its airstrikes on the country.
This was the first time that political analysts had seen a cyberattack occurring in tandem with ground operations in a military conflict. The cyberattack disrupted telecommunications, making it difficult for Georgian agencies to communicate effectively. Further, it also attacked Georgian news sites, effectively isolating the Georgian public on current affairs and the state of the conflict. Many sites were also re-routed through Russian servers. This meant that Georgians trying to access any website, such as those for online banking, were being re-routed to false Russian websites.
The Georgian government accused the Russian state of online interference. The Russian government, in turn, denied any involvement in the cyberattacks, stating that they believed the attacks came from a Russian online criminal organisation called the Russian Business Network (R.B.N). The cyberattacks eased military operations for the Russian army appeared merely to be good fortune or coincidence.
- A few years later in Iran, the Struxnet virus infiltrated their uranium enrichment infrastructure and sabotaged their equipment.
- Fast forward again to the USA 2016 election, where Russian intelligence agencies were accused of allegedly interfering with the election process by creating false news sites and voices of dissent online that influenced social media. These fake news sites and bot commenters worked (mostly) to defame the Democratic Party candidate, Hillary Clinton. In fact, these same accusations are being levelled at Russia again, in light of the current elections in Germany.
- Most recently, the WannaCry virus infected the UK’s National Health Service servers in May 2017. Analysis by major cybersecurity agencies initially suspected that the virus had been deployed by North Korea’s cyber spies to extort money. Then, it was suspected that Chinese hackers were behind the attack. Later (and most explosively), analysts suspected the WannaCry software was developed by the American NSA, which was then stolen by black hat hackers and sold on the dark web.
The idea that espionage and warfare can affect our day-to-day lives in such subtle and innocuous ways can be overwhelming and intimidating. Indeed, the politics of statecraft can easily affect our businesses and personal activities, regardless of our political opinions or allegiances.
Cyberespionage and cyberwarfare are not just an attempt by states to learn one another’s secrets, but also an attempt to undermine them. They do so by crippling a country’s economy or infrastructure; or by poking holes in their security systems. Sometimes, enemy governments are not interested in stealing credit card details, they want to show that they can.
Russia’s government has never openly acknowledged their involvement in Georgia’s cyberattacks in 2008 or the campaign of misinformation during the 2016 USA Presidential elections. The art of diplomacy and espionage would never allow states to openly acknowledge their own cyber-intelligence capabilities. Governments will always lay the blame on rogue organisations such as the infamous group Anonymous.
Cyberwarfare has become more and more asymmetric as smaller and equally powerful parties, such as the Syrian Electronic Army (who are not necessarily funded or endorsed by the Syrian government) carry out their own cyberespionage.
Whether politically or economically motivated, these non-state third parties are still able to affect international relations. Further, this also means that traditionally ‘weaker’ states are now able to engage in sophisticated cyberespionage without necessarily being a super power. In fact, ASIO’s recent annual report for 2017 reveals that the use of non-state actors in asymmetrical cyberwarfare is not only on the rise but immensely efficient and low cost to spying governments.
Businesses and individuals are vulnerable to a cyberattack from any front, be it a political, criminal or state-sponsored organisation. The distinction will remain blurred for a long time to come. Our governments are already engaged in sophisticated campaigns of cyberespionage and counter-espionage, but they can only share so much information about how their espionage activities may also affect private enterprise. It remains up to the public to ensure that they take as much precaution as possible to shore up their cyber defences.
As there is no existing international law that would help regulate behaviour in cyberspace (for example, IT-based rules similar to the Geneva Convention); we are all at the mercy of the political games of international relations.
It is important to remain vigilant and treat any cyberattack as a commercial or private breach and allow governments to engage in their diplomatic relations as usual. We may become pawns in the broader game of international relations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we all have to play in it.
For further information on Cybersecurity and means to protect against cyberwarfare and espionage, do not hesitate to contact Agilient.
The Agilient Team