What is cyberwar?



Cyberwarfare refers to the use of digital attacks — like computer viruses and hacking — by one country to disrupt the vital computer systems of another, with the aim of creating damage, death and destruction. Future wars will see hackers using computer code to attack an enemy’s infrastructure,

It also involves the actions of a nation-state or international organization to attack and attempt to damage another nation’s computers or information networks through, for example, computer viruses or denial-of-service attacks. RAND research provides recommendations to military and civilian decisionmakers on methods of defending against the damaging effects of cyber warfare on a nation’s digital infrastructure.

A short history of cyberwarfair


For many people, 2007 was when cyberwar went from the theoretical to the actual.

When the government of the eastern European state of Estonia announced plans to move a Soviet war memorial, it found itself under a furious digital bombardment that knocked banks and government services offline (the attack is generally considered to have been Russian hackers; Russian authorities denied any knowledge). However, the DDoS attacks on Estonia did not create physical damage and, while a significant event, were not considered to have risen to the level of actual cyberwarfare.

Another cyberwarfare milestone was hit the same year, however, when the Idaho National Laboratory proved, that a digital attack could be used to destroy physical objects — in this case a generator.

The Stuxnet malware attack took place in 2010, which proved that malware could impact the physical world.

Since then there has been a steady stream of stories: in 2013, the NSA said it had stopped a plot by an unnamed nation — believed to be China — to attack the BIOS chip in PCs, rendering them unusable. In 2014, there was the attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, blamed by many on North Korea, which showed that it was not just government systems and data that could be targeted by state-backed hackers.

Perhaps most seriously, just before Christmas in 2015, hackers managed to disrupt the power supply in parts of Ukraine, by using a well-known Trojan called Black Energy In March 2016, seven Iranian hackers were accused of trying to shut down a New York dam in a federal grand jury indictment.

Nations are rapidly building cyber defence and offence capabilities and NATO in 2014 took the important step of confirming that a cyberattack on one of its members would be enough to allow them to invoke article 5, the collective defence mechanism at the heart of the alliance. In 2016, it then defined cyberspace as an “operational domain” — an area in which conflict can occur:


What is cyber deterrence?

Just as nations attempt to deter rivals from attacking in conventional weapons, so countries are developing the concept of cyber deterrence to help to prevent digital attacks from occurring in the first place — by making the cost of the attack too high for any potential assailant.

One way of doing that is securing and hardening their own computer systems so that is becomes very hard — and very expensive — for any attacker to find weaknesses. Thanks to the swiss-cheese nature of so many computer systems the attackers will still have the advantage here.

The other option is to impose costs on the attackers through sanctions, criminal investigations or even the threat of striking back. Most recently the US in particular has been attempting to create deterrence through a policy of naming-and-shaming, in particular using indictments to name particular individuals it believes are responsible for carrying out state-backed cyber attacks.However, as hackers (from all nations) continue to poke and pry at the computer systems of their rivals, it would seem that cyber deterrence is at best a work in progress.

How do you defend against cyberwarfare?

The same cybersecurity practices that will protect against everyday hackers and cyber crooks will provide some protection against state-backed cyberattackers, who use many of the same techniques.

That means covering the basics: changing default passwords and making passwords hard to crack, not using the same password for different systems, making sure that all systems are patched and up-to-date (including the use of antivirus software), ensuring that systems are only connected to the internet if necessary and making sure that essential data is backed up securely. This may be enough to stop some attackers or at least give them enough extra work to do that they switch to an easier target.

Recognising that your organisation can be a target is an important step: even if your organisation is not an obvious target for hackers motivated by greed (who would hack a sewage works for money?), you may be a priority for hackers looking to create chaos.

However, for particularly high-value targets this is unlikely to be enough: these attacks are called ‘advanced and persistent’. In this case it may be hard to stop them at the boundary and additional cybersecurity investments will be needed: strong encryption, multi-factor authentication, and advanced network monitoring. It may well be that you cannot stop them penetrating your network, but you may be able to stop them doing any damage.

At a higher level, nations and groups of states are developing their own cyber defence strategies. The European Union recently announced plans to work on a cyber defence plan which it will invoke if it faces a major, cross-border cyberattack, and plans to work with NATO on cyber defence exercises. However, not all nations consider such planning to be a particularly high priority.

More broadly, to prevent cyberwar incidents, countries need to talk more: to understand where the boundaries lie and which kinds of behaviour are acceptable. Until that is done there is always the risk of misunderstanding and escalation.

One way of doing that is securing and hardening their own computer systems so that is becomes very hard — and very expensive — for any attacker to find weaknesses. Thanks to the swiss-cheese nature of so many computer systems the attackers will still have the advantage here.

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