Cyberwar or Cyberwarfare, as the name suggests means a war that is virtual. That is where the literal meaning ends. It has real war like implications in the real world.
The war happens on a virtual battlefield but the effects play out in the real world, which makes it very scary. Cyberwar is a double-edged sword looming large on the world’s economy. It doesn’t even have a masked face to show. It turns up unannounced at any time instantly.
Let’s delve into understanding this superpower with a dark murky side.
A brief history of Cyberwar
Though it raised its then innocent head through a Cornell University graduate student Robert Tappan Morris, Jr. who released a 99 line code in 1988 to test how big the internet(then known as ARPANET) was. It turned out to be the first cyber-attack and affected nearly 6000 computers connected to the internet and rest is history. This later came to know as the Morris worm after its creator.
Key Timeline of the Cyberwar
Estonia’s brush with cyberwar-2007
The first incident of a cyberwar like attack is the one that happened during April 2007. Estonia, a country in Northern Europe wanted to relocate a Soviet-era Bronze statue of a soldier, which was a reminder of Soviet oppression for them. Underneath the statue lay 12 buried bodies believed to belong to WW2 soldiers and hence was a war memorial.
The news of the relocation outraged the minority Russian population. Due to a political mandate after the elections in March 2007, it was decided that the statue would to be relocated in the suburbs of Tallinn. But the night of April 26th and following 2 nights, the enraged mob took to vandalism and loot.
This movement also led to the first known cyber-attack on a country. Based on DDoS(distributed denial of service), almost all government websites, online banking, telcos, media networks were brought down. All networks in Estonia reported massive unprecedented traffic and ultimately went out of access. Estonia took weeks to bring its economy back to normal. This incident served as a showcase of how a cyber-attack can potentially affect and bring down the entire economy of a country to its knees. It came as no surprise when revelations revealed the attack was backed by the Kremlin, the Russian powerhouse. Also an eye-opener of sorts, for the first time many countries started realizing the deficits in its preparation for such an attack.
A malicious code snippet, just about 500KB developed by the USA and Israel to stop Iran’s plan to build a nuclear weapon. This was deemed a major global threat and the USA’s role was confirmed by The New York Times. Stuxnet is reported to have destroyed 1500 out of 5000 centrifuges Iran was running in its nuclear plant to purify Uranium. This proved that Cyberwar can even damage huge physical targets.
The sophisticated snippet was coded to kill itself on June 24th, 2012, which ultimately stopped its spread.
As an offensive Iran launched operation Shamoon in August 2012. This malware wiped out data from at least 35000 computers in Saudi Arabia and targeted gas companies. After wiping data it displayed a burning American flag and a drowned Syrian child on the screen to stare.
Night Dragon 2010-11
McAfee discovered another malware traced back to China in 2010-11 and named it Night Dragon. An estimated 71 organizations mainly the Global Oil, Gas, and Energy companies were targeted.
Embarrassing Rig at the USA’s elections-2016
The USA’s run-up to the 2016 presidential elections was blatantly rigged inside the Kremlin to undermine the Democratic party. American intelligence agencies have reasoned and proved this fact beyond doubt. The Washington post threw some light on how the Erstwhile president Obama had countered the rig by firing 35 Russian diplomats and cut down economic sanctions to Russia. There is an evident fear that Kremlin will repeat it again in 2020.
Cyberwar and Cybercrimes are constantly evolving making it very difficult for economies to stay equipped. Ransomware, Malware, Spyware, Hackware, Espionage,
Phishing, Zero-day attack, DDoS, SQL injection, DNS Tunneling are a few of the common tools employed by potential hackers in cyberwarfare.
The most disastrous was the “WannaCry” ransomware in 2017, which wreaked havoc by encrypting Microsoft Windows OS. It affected more than 200,000 systems in 150 countries. Across the world, a number of telecom companies, Hospitals, Banks, Railways, Shipping & transport companies took a major hit for 2-3 days. The malware demanded Bitcoins in 3 days to release the lock and get back access to the systems. The UK and the USA have pointed their fingers at North Korea as the mastermind behind this.
NotPetya was a similar worm which targeted Ukraine.
Present Cyberwar Scenario
China, Iran, Russia, North Korea, Israel, and the USA are the top powers in cyberwarfare. Russia, the top contender in the cyberwarfare has warned Americans of dire consequences following news of the USA targeting Russia’s power grids.
USA President Donald Trump has directed the US Cyber command to be upped to a Unified Combatant Command focused on cyberspace operations. This move is also tackle the cyberspace challenges and opportunities with its allies globally. UK has pledged £22m to be prepared for cyberwar. As per recent article on cybersecurity intelligence, more than 30 countries are ready to with an offensive cyber-attack strategy.
Future of Cyberwar
The battleground of the cyberwar is constantly changing. The fine line between hacking and a potential attempt to wage a cyberwar is blurring.
Smart homes (with automated controls for everything inside the house), along with things we carry around with us all the internet turned on gadgets like smartwatches, fitness trackers, and smartphones are vulnerable to pose a serious security risk.
All these Internet of things(IoT) in everyday life can very soon be a national security disaster. There are hacktivists at an arms reach trying to cash in on zero-day attacks which are easy targets and often very hard to fix.
Peace efforts to stop Cyberwar
There are not many rules and guidelines to counter cyberwar. The tools to detect online war are still in development in the majority of the world.
In November 2018, France led a pack in which 130+ countries signed on a global cyber warfare treaty, a protocol to abide by in cyberwarfare. The cyber superpowers USA, Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran did not sign on this pact. This raises a definite question if the pact was really worth making.
Cyberwar is here to stay. The invisible weapon can target Airplanes, Enemy fighter jets, Stock exchange, Power grids, Railways, Industries, Airports, Banks, Defence facilities, Individual homes, and People. Though cyberwar hasn’t claimed lives, it is clear that it has the capability to do so. Any country with money and skills are training more in cyberwarfare along with the traditional warfare.
The world’s superpowers would need to collaborate with the rest of the countries to develop a common rulebook for cyberwarfare. Otherwise, the cyber wonks predict that the damage of cyberwar on mankind can be devastating.
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