What is cyber warfare?

We explain what cyber warfare is and why you need to pay attention to the threats posed

We may have once considered weapons of mass destruction to be only a physical entity, whether they take the form of nukes, chemical or biological weapons. In today's age, however, there's little reason we shouldn't equate sending a malicious email with launching a weapon of mass destruction, so long as it's aimed at the right targets.

Cyber warfare has, in recent years, escalated with reports emerging of Russian and Chinese state-backed hackers launching attacks against other countries, including Ukraine. Even the British army has been reported as examining ways of using malware as a military tool.

General Sir Patrick Sanders, for instance, outlined recently how the UK targeted devices like smartphones and laptops used by ISIS to communicate with their allies. That these attacks have been successful signals a change in the landscape of warfare, with the disruption even causing enemy combatants to allegedly be directed into the path of UK and allied troops.

With governments across the world becoming increasingly dependent on technology and systems, there's a greater onus placed on cyber security as well as offensive capabilities. Because everything from financial services to transport networks is reliant on these systems, the risk is much greater for a hostile state to disrupt these systems to cause damage, rather than rely on traditional and expensive forms of warfare, such as ground troops and missiles.

There are several benefits of pursuing cyber warfare, including the fact that these attackers are more difficult to track down. Malware, too, can lie dormant and communicate in secret with a command-and-control server until its operators decide to pull the trigger on its destructive capabilities. Quite often, nobody will initially claim responsibility for these attacks, creating havoc and confusion as victims speculate as to who may be responsible.

Is anyone under cyber warfare attack?

A warning of a Student infection in front of a binary background

The answer to this question, if we use the definition found in the dictionary, is a resounding yes. Just like most Western nations, there are several daily cyber attacks against government organisations and enterprises too. However, are we engaged in a cyber war? Not according to the 'clear and unambiguous' attribution requirement.

There are a number of nations developing cyber weapons to use in future conflicts, including Russia and China. Other countries that are just as active include the US, France, and Israel. This isn't to say that these countries are using these capabilities, although we know they possess the cyber weapons themselves and have used them in the past. For example, Stuxnet was a joint venture between the US and Israel to destroy Iran's nuclear programme capability.

What weapons are used in cyber war?

The tools of destruction used in cyber attacks do bear some resemblance to weapons commonly used in other criminal attacks, in that they incur the same effect.

A bot net
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For example, botnets that exist to launch distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks can target critical services and cripple entities digitally or may even serve as a diversion from other malicious cyber activities, such as attempts to infiltrate the network. Spear phishing and social engineering, too, are techniques also deployed to get cyber criminals closer to the targeted systems. Threats from the inside pose a significant risk for organisations hoping to safeguard their systems against intruders, though are highly potent as far as hackers are concerned, allowing hackers to directly expose a network to a threat, or allow a group to steal sensitive data.

One useful example of how multiple layers of attack can be used to great effect is Stuxnet, which was first encountered ten years ago. An employee situated inside an Iranian nuclear power site inserted a USB stick embedded with the Stuxnet worm, either knowingly or unknowingly, into an air-gapped system. Exploiting multiple zero-day exploits, this malware searched for specific software running centrifuges, and commanded them to spin dangerously fast and then slow for a period of months without being detected. These centrifuges eventually broke and more than 1,000 machines were rendered useless.

The attack was never successfully blamed on any known party, although it's thought that this cyber weapon was created jointly between the US and Israeli military entities. While neither nation has denied the charge, it's also alleged Stuxnet was played as part of a showreel at the retirement party of the head of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).

Other examples of cyber warfare

The main UN building with flags of several countries on display

While Stuxnet is one of the best examples of cyber warfare in action, there are other significant events that can be attributed to state-level attacks.

One recent example comes from Russia - a country that has been accused of many and various state-level cyberattacks. Russia is accused of mounting multiple cyber attacks against Ukraine, including the BlackEnergy attack that cut the power to 700,000 homes in the country in 2015 and the NotPetya malware, which masqueraded as ransomware but was in reality designed purely to destroy the systems it infected.

North Korea, which has been generating headlines over its nuclear posturing and turbulent diplomatic relationship with the US, has also been active in cyber space. According to researchers, the North Korean state has been linked to the prolific and dangerous hacking organisation codenamed HIDDEN COBRA, also known as the Lazarus Group. Both the Sony hack of 2014 and the hack of a Bangladeshi bank in 2016 were pinned on these hackers.

More recently, reports in January 2020 claimed a cyber attack on the United Nations (UN) was the work of state-sponsored hackers. The attack saw hackers compromise at least 40 servers at UN offices in Vienna, Geneva and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human rights. 

Cyber attacks and hybrid warfare

Increasingly, cyber attacks are being seen as an aspect of what's known as hybrid warfare.As explained by The Conversation, the term hybrid warfare is ill-defined and has changed in meaning over the past ten years or so since it came into use. Increasingly, however, it's used to describe the typical cyber warfare practices laid out here with efforts to disrupt democratic processes.

For example, in the run-up to an election, "Group A" may engage in efforts to alter sentiment through channels like social media while simultaneously targeting the websites of its main competitors, "Group B" and "Group C", with DDoS attacks or cyber vandalism.

Often, it won't be Group A itself that engages in these activities, but instead, it will outsource to companies that specialise in the spreading of disinformation and hackers for hire. This makes it more difficult to trace back.

This is a tactic also seen in state-sponsored cyber attacks, where countries claim an attack originates from "patriotic hackers" acting on their own terms without any persuasion or reward from the state.

Indeed, when it comes to nation-states, we can see another aspect of hybrid cyber warfare when cyber attacks are carried out alongside "kinetic attacks", which is to say traditional warfare tactics like bombs. This is similar to when, in the past, saboteurs would target critical infrastructure ahead of an invasion, only now the attacks can happen remotely.

False flags

A finger pressing a 'Fake News' keyboard button with a Russian flag background

The only cyber weapon that is perhaps even more dangerous and disruptive than the zero-day is the false flag. We know that, for example, the attack by the so-called 'Cyber Caliphate' claiming to be affiliated to ISIS on a US military database was a false flag operation by the Russian state-sponsored hacking group APT 28. Why does this matter? Because the US retaliated with kinetic attacks on cyber communication channels and drone strikes against human targets in Syria. 

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