The first question you might ask when reading this title is, ‘What is cyber war?’ After all you are probably aware of the abundance of cyber attacks which happen every day, but cyber war?
Cyber War – The Facts
Cyber attacks have been on the increase for many years; although they have been happening since the dawn of the internet, it is the large scale cases that have caught the public eye. For instance, Yahoo had one billion accounts hacked in 2013 and there is still controversy regarding the US election and a possible Russian cyber attack.
No intelligence community can allow these threats to pass without realizing the potential of the internet. The same tools that the hackers use can be developed and improved on by the government. These can then be used to attack other countries; potentially disabling their missile launching capability or simply destroying their infrastructure.
Cyber War – Has It Already Begun?
There have been reports that America has already colluded with Israel to launch a cyber attack on the Iranian nuclear industry. The cyber attack was orchestrated through a piece of malware which made it impossible for Iran to use its centrifuges. This prevents them from enriching Uranium and potentially making nuclear weapons.
The attack happened in 2010 and little has been known about it until recently. It serves to highlight the deadly potential of malware.
It is already routine for intelligence agencies in the biggest countries to hack foreign computers to check what is happening in another country. This is usually just a listening operation. However, the successful malware attack shows that it is possible to leave malware in a system which can cause disruption or even stay dormant until triggered in the future.
Of course, public knowledge of this attack can now serve as authorization for other countries to attempt the same.
It used to be easy to see which country was the most powerful; military might was easy to assess and not something to be argued with. Now, cyber attacks can be completed by many different countries with dedicated cyber units. But, more worrying is that these attacks can also be carried out by individuals.
In general the infrastructures in western countries are hugely dependent on the internet and electronically controlled devices. As technology improves and dependence on these devices grow the amount of damage a well targeted cyber attack could do is significant.
Unfortunately, despite an increasing awareness of the dangers involved in cyber attack, many of the systems currently in use by the largest western countries do not have adequate defense protocols.
This is the real issue. Countries such as America have already proved they are capable of launching a cyber attack, but are they ready to defend against one?
The Cyber War
Hackers are exceptionally clever and good at hiding their tracks. It is really a question of time as to when an attack will be launched against a significant infrastructure. Once the network is damaged it will be very difficult to identify where the attack has come from and retaliate.
In addition, whilst the mess of the first attack is being sorted you may find follow-up attacks are orchestrated on different systems. This will add to the confusion and mayhem; the more systems which are damaged and offline the harder everyday life will become. There will be a huge economic and financial impact.
Anyone who believes that the government systems are already too protected need only look at the recent incidents of information being stolen; from western governments. Indeed, Russia has already use a cyber attack to disrupt everyday services in the Ukraine
In effect the war has already begun. These small scale attacks can be seen as malignant hackers. However, they can also be connected with foreign powers or simply be noted by other countries. A hacker needs very little equipment to do their job; a significant offer from their government will almost certainly be all the incentive they need.
The only defense to these cyber attacks is to build a strong and vigilant cyber defense; the threat of a retaliatory cyber attack is unlikely to be a big enough deterrent. Unless countries improve their cyber security now it is likely to be a matter of time before the first cyber attack on a major infrastructure happens.
Reacting then is too late; it is essential to understand the cyber war has already started; defense is the most important action at this juncture.