What Should I Know about Cyber Warfare?
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Is the United States ready to fight a war in cyberspace?
War has become very complicated; bullets and bombs are practically passé. Today the world’s political powers fight with – or hope to fight with - vastly more secretive weapons designed to defeat the enemy without killing anyone. Is this a more civilized way to fight a war?
Civilized or not, cyber warfare can inflict serious and expensive damage to an opponent’s assets, perhaps bringing about the demise of an entire country. So let’s explore the arcane world of cyber warfare, paying particular attention to the United States, a country with perhaps the most to lose in such a war.
What Is Cyber Warfare?
Cyber warfare is computer hacking for the purpose of sabotage, espionage or propaganda. Hackers can also engage in industrial “burglary” by changing, copying or deleting the data bases of companies or organizations.
Further, as the world embraces the use of the Internet, cyber warfare is becoming much more sophisticated and dangerous. In theory, the enemy could hack into a country’s nuclear command center, reducing or destroying its capability. Could China or Russia defeat the U.S. in this way? Perhaps the nuclear assets of the U.S. have already been brought “off-line,” so if the country tried to use its nukes, they wouldn't work.
Practice of Cyber Warfare
Of course, the world’s powers would love to control the cyber assets of the planet, because gaining the upper hand could be more important than possessing a commanding conventional or nuclear means. There are two factors that make cyber warfare a very attractive option: anonymity and the easy flow of information via the Internet and other networks. But, like the proverbial double-edged sword, these factors cut both ways.
As for anonymity, it’s easier fighting an enemy if you know who they are and where they can be found. But cyber warriors, as they could be called, don’t wear uniforms or operate in any particular place. Fighting a cyber war makes guerrilla warfare seem easy in comparison.
Regarding a flow of data, the easy access to information so cherished by many “free” countries makes them more vulnerable to attack. Shutting off a country's Internet connections could be a powerful defensive strategy, but would this be too heavy a price to pay to attain cyber security?
Keeping all of this in mind, let’s see how the cyber war has already begun:
Stuxnet Worm Attacks Iran
In September 2010, “somebody” hacked into Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility. A malicious computer implant or malware was somehow introduced into the facility’s computer system, eventually destroying the centrifuges used to produce nuclear fuel. This so-called Stuxnet worm may have been created by the U.S. and Israel under the codename Operation Olympic Games.
Regardless of its origin, the Stuxnet worm still exists in data bases throughout the world, so hackers can use it to attack machinery virtually any place on the planet, even in countries such as the U.S. and Israel. It appears we are witnessing a modern version of Pandora’s box.
Israeli Airstrike on Syria
In September 2007, Israel allegedly used cyber warfare to attack a nuclear installation in Syria. Dubbed Operation Orchard, cyber experts suggest the Israelis (perhaps with help from the U.S.) may have used an aerial drone to implant “computer packets” into the Syrian radar defense system, essentially erasing the presence of attack aircraft which destroyed the site and killed 10 North Koreans technicians. (Syria has continually denied the site was nuclear in nature, and the U.S. and Israel have denied bombing it.)
Russian Cyber Warfare in Georgia and Estonia
In April 2007, Russian hackers, many of whom former employees of the KGB, attacked numerous computer sites in Estonia, a tiny country hoping to escape the yoke of Russian domination. Millions of computers were used to implement a Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS), forcing many Estonian websites to shut down.
In July 2008, Russia launched another DDOS against Georgia, wreaking havoc on Georgia’s websites, so its Internet traffic couldn’t reach the outside world. These cyber attacks happened while Russia engaged in a “kinetic” or conventional war against Georgia, trying to regain two territories Georgia had taken after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.
India Attacks Pakistan
Most people know that India and Pakistan have been Implacable foes since the subcontinent was divided in 1947. In November 2010, a group of Indian hackers called the Indian Cyber Army launched a cyber intrusion into various websites of Pakistan’s government, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These cyber attacks appeared in retaliation for the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008.
North Korea Flexes Its Cyber Muscles
Right before the Fourth of July holiday in 2009, agents of North Korea launched a cyber attack against various websites in the U.S. and South Korea. This DDOS, run by a so-called botnet, this one in particular a collection of tens of thousands of computers around the world, flooded websites with useless requests, temporarily disabling the site for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, among others.
These cyber attacks by North Korea continued for days until internet service providers in the U.S. and North Korea began filtering them out. North Korea was apparently showing its cyber capability without causing permanent damage.
Is Your Computer a Zombie?
A botnet is launched by computers infected with a malware virus. In theory, any computer could be a zombie, perhaps yours or mine. Zombies either wait until instructed to attack computers and/or websites or immediately begin looking for other computers to attack and infect, thereby spreading a computer worm. Antivirus or firewall software can catch and block these worms, but hackers are constantly producing new ones.
Therefore, beware if your computer runs slower for some reason, because this is a major sign of zombie-like behavior!
Why not buy a book about cyber warfare
Cyber War, the Book
Various books have been written about cyber warfare, and an excellent one is Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do about It by Richard Clarke and Robert Knake. This book provides an overview of cyber war, in particular as it relates to the United States, perhaps the most powerful nation-state capable of waging cyber war, though it may also be the one to pay the highest price if such a war erupts!
The book begins by announcing in an ominous fashion various sobering realizations:
Cyber war is real. As previously mentioned in this story, many nations have already engaged is cyber skirmishes of one sort or another, but much more sophisticated attacks are at least theoretically possible.
Cyber war happens at the speed of light. Cyber photons move down fiber-optic cables much faster than the speed of thought, giving decision makers little time to react.
Cyber war is global. Cyber attacks can start from just about any place in the world and quickly involve many nations.
Cyber war skips the battlefield. Systems that people rely on, such as the power grid and financial networks, can be quickly overtaken or brought down without the involvement of conventional or nuclear deterrents.
Cyber war has begun. Nations are already preparing the battlefield for cyber war by breaking into networks and infrastructures and implanting trapdoors or logic bombs designed to disable or erase various essential systems within minutes. This ongoing nature of cyber war creates an unprecedented dimension of instability in the world.
What the United States Needs to Do
The authors of Cyber War stress the need for the U.S. to maintain both an offensive and defensive capability for dealing with cyber warfare. Unfortunately, no country in the world has embraced computerization and the Internet as much as the U.S. Few countries, if any, value a free flow of information as well. The U.S. also fosters a culture that resists government regulation.
Clarke and Knake emphasize that the U.S. government needs to create a national strategy to deal with cyber war, including perhaps the ability to sever Internet links to the country at a moment’s notice, a capability China has, incidentally.
They also pointed out that software used throughout the country needs perusal by agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, so entry points for hackers can be minimized or eliminated. But software producers such as Microsoft have balked at opening their software to government inspection. Using a Linux operating system could be a better option, because it provides a user-friendly platform which can be easily altered to fit security protocols.
Perhaps the greatest risk the U.S. faces from cyber war is the possible destruction of the power grid. Losing it would disable the entire country for months or even years, returning everyone to the horse and buggy era. Countermeasures could involve disconnecting the power grid from the Internet and also developing a new “smart grid.” These measures would take time, of course, but the process could begin today.
The people of the world face many dire threats, both natural and manmade. Worrying about nuclear annihilation is bad enough, but now people must also come to grips with the ramifications of cyber warfare, perhaps not as deadly as nukes falling from the sky but potentially very destructive nonetheless.
Maybe returning to the horse and buggy era wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all!
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