cyberwar viceland | Cyber war | what is cyber warefare | cyberspace

What is Cyber warfare??

Actions by a nation-state actor to attack and attempt to damage another nation's computers or critical infrastructure is known as cyber warefare.

cyberwar viceland | Cyber war | what is cyber warefare| cyberspace
Cyber crime

Cyber war 

Somewhere in the South China Sea, a US and European missile cruiser on joint patrol stray too close to one of China's many man-made islands. Illegally built and hardened with military facilities- despite a ruling to their illegality by The Hague in international court- China has warned repeatedly that it will not tolerate any other nation's military presence near the controversial islands.

The United States and the European Union meanwhile have both taken the side of many of the South China Sea's lesser nations, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, who see the military build-up as an incursion into their sovereign water and an attempt to bully them into submission. Refusing to bow before Chinese aggression, the US and European militaries have routinely engaged in freedom of navigation exercises through the disputed man-made island chains. Yet this patrol is different. 

The local Chinese commander- acting on his own or perhaps with authority from his chain of command- orders a Chengdu J-20 combat patrol into the air. Armed with anti-ship missiles, the jets super cruise to within a few dozen miles of their targets, but this time instead of warning off the European and American ships, they are ordered to retaliate for the incursion.

On board the European cruiser, alarms sound as three of the four Chinese aggressors loose a volley of anti-ship missiles. Immediately the ship syncs up with its American counterparts via a wireless communications link, and together the two ship's powerful AEGIS systems track the incoming missiles and fire off countermeasures. One ship protecting the other, supersonic interceptors fire off from the decks of both ships, eight tasked with intercepting the incoming missiles and another eight screaming into the night sky to take out the Chinese jets. 

The exchange between the two sides lasts just forty five seconds, at the end of which three Chinese planes are fiery wrecks, with one having landed a hit on the European cruiser and killing dozens of sailors.

Military common networks relay news of the confrontational light speed to commanders around the globe, and within minutes air, sea, and ground forces across Asia, Europe, and America are gearing up for World War III. Yet within just seconds of the news of the attack on the European and American ships, a new generation of weapons have already been deployed. 

Less than a minute after news of two dozen dead European sailors and three downed Chinese pilots reach the desks of their respective military commanders, cyberweapons have already gone on the offensive, a digital war sweeping across the internet at the speed of light, and catching the entire world in its wake.

Such a scenario may seem a bit far-fetched, yet it's an eventuality that every day militaries all over the world prepare for. In fact, every single day a digital war takes place amidst the background chatter of daily internet use, with nations attacking each other's critical infrastructure looking for vulnerabilities. Considered a 'soft war', these attacks are meant to look for and stockpile potential vulnerabilities in the digital systems that are the lifeblood of modern nations. Energy grids, communications and financial networks are the primary targets, and while no nation is yet launching an offensive to actually cripple these systems, they instead stockpile vulnerabilities so that they can exploits them in a time of war.

Russian Involment in American Presidential Election

Yet other nations, such as Russia, carry out more overt and hostile attacks such as against a nation's political systems. Best seen in the 2016 US Presidential election, during which Russia hacked the DNC to favor the Donald Trump campaign, Russia has in fact been carrying out cyber attacks against the political systems of NATO and Baltic nations for at least a decade. Russia has regularly used its cyber muscle to favor far-right politicians while attacking centrists and liberal candidates. They use their cyber influence to stoke dissent amongst a country's citizens, and to stoke fear and xenophobia which they can channel towards the far-right, nationalistic candidates that they prefer and can thus manipulate on selected into office.

Russia's reach is indeed far, and while their influence on the 2016 election was significant, their best success to date so far may be Britain's Brexit vote, during which they ran disinformation campaigns online to stoke xenophobia. With Brexit being a widely recognized political and economic disaster for Britain, Russia has found great success in its cyber offensive operations. Yet if cyber warfare is so prevalent and has obviously hostile intent, why don't nations react the way they would to kinetic attacks? That's partly to do with the fact that cyber warfare itself is a very new development, and so the international community is at a loss as to how exactly respond to the cyber offenses of another hostile nation. In Russia's example, NATO could react with a kinetic attack against Russia, but politicians must ask themselves if cyber operations are truly threatening enough to warrant an all-out kinetic war.

When a hostile nation has so clearly meddled in your politics and perhaps set the course of your nation's political leadership, the question may indeed need to be considered a strong yes- after all, just how sovereigns nation are you really if your elected leader is a tool of the Kremlin, or routinely takes action on the international stage that benefit the very nation that is hostile to you and is attacking you every day? There simply exist no clearly defined boundaries between what constitutes a hostile military attack against a nation, and what is simply cyber crime. Currently cyber attacks by hostile nations are lumped together with espionage, crime, and hactivism, and realistically you wouldn't call for an airstrike against a teenager hacking into Papa John's to get themselves free pizza delivered.

You wouldn't do such a thing because it would've an over-reaction, but also because it's completely unrealistic: nobody wants Papa Johns pizza- even if it's free. On a serious note though, our current lack of political will to classify hostile cyber attacks as military actions only leaves nations even more vulnerable to being further attacked.

Russia, emboldened by their 2016 success in the US election, has for instance been widely reported by intelligence agencies around the world as gearing up for an ever greater campaign against the American voter in 2020. Yet the US has largely been silent in its response to Russian aggression- despite President Obama's expulsion of several Russian diplomats known to be active spies, and an alleged brief cyber attack against Russian systems that led to some Russian computers overheating and melting down.

Cyber attack in Trump Administration 

Sadly the Trump administration has shown little willingness to punish Russia for its attacks against the US, and not only is the lack of the political will to strike back suspicious, but it is also dangerous for the world at large. If the world continues down the road we are on, cyber attacks will only escalate until ending disastrously in an attack that's finally large enough to warrant a military response, starting a large scale war. Yet such an attack will likely be completely devastating to the victimized nation, resulting in major disruptions to its power grid or financial and communication systems, bringing its economy to a screeching halt.

Perhaps what would be best instead is if cyberattacks were at last met with a significant response, thus marking a clear line in the sand for just how far cyber warfare can be taken before military retaliation is inevitable. But just how deadly could a cyber war really be? The answer to that question is in our own not too distant past. In the early 2000s before the Iran nuclear deal, Israel was reaching a political crisis point. For its own continued survival it could not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, yet with the expansion of several enrichment facilities iran was poised to do just that in a matter of years.

Many inside of Israel saw a preemptive strike as the best course of option, yet each time Israeli jets had strayed into Iran, they had brought up the possibility of major retaliation. An all-out war between Israel and Iran would have quickly spilled over into other Arab countries, leading to yet another Jew-Arab war which would have in turn brought in Israel's American and European allies. For the US this situation was completely unacceptable, as was a nuclear Iran. Not only was there the risk of a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel, but if Iran was allowed to develop nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia and Jordan both had already stated that they would immediately begin developing their own nuclear weapons as well.

In short a nuclear iran would lead to a nuclear middle east, the single most volatile region in the entire world. Yet allowing Israel to kick off another major war by invading Iran was not a good option either, and with Iran digging its enrichment centrifuges deep underground, simple military strikes would prove fruitless. That's when US and Israeli computer scientists came forward with a solution. They believed they could infect Iranian computer with a worm that could in turn destroy the Iranian centrifuges, and leave the Iranians one the wiser as to what exactly happened.

The plan was immediately ok'ed, and working together, US and Israeli engineers developed the Stuxnet virus. However, the centrifuges and the computer network they were linked to were not connected to the internet for obvious security reasons. This means that the virus would have to be brought in physically and uploaded directly to the secure computer network, and to do this several Iranian nuclear scientists were singled out and targeted digitally. Eventually the team managed to infect the laptop of one of the scientists while he was connected to the internet, and when he brought the laptop into the nuclear facility and connected to the network there, the worm hopped inside the secure computer systems and began to wreak havoc.

Centrifuges began to spin wildly out of control, causing massive destruction and bringing the Iranian nuclear program to its knees. In the end thousands of centrifuges were destroyed, all by the simple click of a button. A modern cyber war could have just as dire, and physical consequences. If infected, the computer systems of nuclear power plants could be shut down, or hijacked completely- hackers could for instance orderthe release of all water in the plant's cooling system, which would lead to a nuclear meltdownof the overheated reactors and regional disasters all across the land. With hundreds of nuclear power plants aroundthe world, this could devastate major portions of most modern nations.

cyberwar viceland | Cyber war | what is cyber warefare| cyberspace
After the Russians cyber attack

Even conventional power systems could be affected the ough with the physical infrastructure overloaded to the point of causing significant structural damage across a nation's power grid. Such a disaster would take weeks, or months to repair, and if it happened during winter could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable segments of a population. Dams could be hijacked as well, and emergency slices meant to help deal with rising water levels during heavy rains could be forced to remain closed, leading to a collapse of the entire damn.

This would bring untold devastation as hundreds of millions of gallons of water rushed downstream to overtake the communities living in the shadows of large dams such as the three gorges dam or the Hoover dam. Luckily for us, no nation has yet dared to launch any such attack against the other- save for some cases of tampering of Ukraine's energy grid by Russia. Yet the reality is that in the case of another major war, these types of attacks would be the first to be launched by a hostile power.

Russia and China

The option is especially attractive for nations such as Russia and China, who find themselves at a considerable military disadvantage against Europe and its American ally, and in the case of war, it's a certainty that some degree of major attack against a nation's digital infrastructure would take place. The unknown question to many though is just how severe an attack will take place, and how well could a nation weather such an attack. Even more troubling is the fact that many of these attacks could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and yet these cyber weapons are not yet considered weapons of mass destruction.

If caught unawares and the US is crippled by a cyber attack that leads to millions of incidental deaths, are the leaders of Russia and China confident that American leadership won't consider this an attack by a weapon of mass destruction and retaliate with a nuclear attack? 

That is the question that haunts many of the world's premier cyber experts, and sadly, one that we might just have to blunder into in order to find the answer out. The Cyber War will and already is happening and the people who are going to suffer the most are normal users like you.

The military has whole teams fighting this, what do you have? 

You don’t need to have the resources of an army to protect yourself. 

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