By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of Intel Free Press.
Ranking over terrorism, climate change, China, and Iran, so-called ‘cyberwarfare; is deemed the most severe threat to the United States by almost half of American national security leaders. A recent poll that surveyed 353 defense leaders resulted in 45.1 percent responding as such.
It’s possible that alerting statements by Former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta about tumultuous cyber attacks influenced their answers. He warned the country last year about a potential “cyber Pearl Harbor” where malicious hackers from enemy nations could crack into transportation systems to derail passenger trains loaded with innocent people – or shipments full of lethal chemical weapons. State-backed hacker groups from countries like China, Russia, and Iran, according to Panetta’s speculations, may develop methods to contaminate our cities’ water supplies or shut down power grids.
Anything is possible, and there are countless dangers in our computerized, interconnected age – but how much of the cyber vulnerability prospect is hype? Is even ‘warfare’ an appropriate, or ethically sound surname to give such clandestine geopolitical activity? Realistically, terrorists may release explosives at any minute, global warming could raise ocean waters to flood coastal cities, while Chinese development may upset America’s political or economic strongholds.
Examining recent incendiary online events help gauge the avenues that hackers infiltrate, the intended damages they seek, plus the successes their actions have thus far achieved.
Over the past few years, the United States has gone through a number of instances of alleged Chinese cyberattacks. For example, a report came out in February 2013, which outlined a large-scale Chinese cyber-espionage campaign for economic intelligence purposes. Mining into the electronic networks of American institutions and businesses (i.e. the energy, finance, IT, and automotive sectors), hackers worked to uncover hidden trade secrets, actions that outside experts estimate ultimately cost the US tens of billions of dollars.
Media outlets are also targeted, including repeated instances last year where The New York Times and TheWall Street Journal reported Chinese hackers breaking into their company e-mail accounts and websites to monitor coverage of their respective country – allegations that officials in China deny.
Upon speaking with both American and Chinese government leaders about cyberattacks, Peter Singer and Allan Friedman write in their new book, Cybersecurity and Cyberwar, about how each side found the matters to be “far more challenging than traditional concerns between their nations.” Even if members of each country often disagree on matters of human rights, border disputes, or trade, they could at least grasp these concepts, contrary to cyberspace, in which they are unable to fathom their respective nations’ involvement – let alone the others’.
Of course, these cryptic online engagements are not solely an American-Chinese dilemma. For instance, a surge of cyberattacks against American corporations – namely energy companies – took place in Spring 2013, and investigators determined their sources were from the Middle East (which surprised some). Although it was unclear whether these efforts were state-sponsored or independent, the hackers attempted to seize control of energy processing systems by trying to destroy data, manipulate industrial machinery, and sabotage networks that deliver energy.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In the fall, hackers went against Obamacare, deploying series of sixteen strikes against the program’s website, Healthcare.gov. Unassociated with the larger, better-publicized structural failures of Healthcare.gov, none of the attacks, including an attempted “denial of service” endeavor, were successful. But as the website’s database does store citizens’ Social Security numbers, income information, and addresses, most would probably deem it important to keep the website highly secured.
Though US agency websites are equally subject to cyberwarfare as American companies, the federal government also implements the practice as a weapon, one known instance being its 2009 joint efforts with Israel to sabotage Iranian industrial equipment to hinder the country’s nuclear developments. Additional strategizing intentions were revealed last year when The Guardian published an article in June that unveiled President Obama’s orders to officials that they compile a list of potential targets for cyberattacks.
Politically-motivated international hacking takes place throughout many international locales, such as the Korean peninsula. While North and South Korea face an ongoing possibility of (traditional) warfare breaking out – and deadly force is sporadically used – in the meantime, less bloody offenses of cyberwarfare have been escalating. South Korean representatives say that their northern neighbor maintains a force of 3,000 troops that have applied over 6,000 cyberattacks against their country since 2010. Such strikes have shut down the president’s website, hit banks, and disturbed financial services, costing South Korea hundreds of millions of dollars.
Let alone grand-scale political and financial schemes, everyday people have become targets of huge cyberattacks, for instance, those against Target, America’s third-largest retailer. In December 2013, amidst the hustle of holiday shopping, hackers broke into Target’s data, stealing credit and debit card data from as many as 40 million customers. The company is investigating these actions.
Everyday people also face these risks, where individuals’ e-mail passwords are stolen daily, or video gameplay is impeded when servers are disturbed by hackers. Smartphones are subject, too; Snapchat, the popular photo-sharing app, suffered a recent incident where 4.6 million user names and phone numbers were exposed, a move that was not so severe, but definitely proved the vulnerability of the platform that is esteemed for its perceived security.
Like the cyber world it is part of, cyberwarfare is incredibly vast and diverse, thereby taking many different forms. As so much human activity manifests itself online thanks to technology, its vulnerability to manipulation by hackers does not vary based on the physical presence of the institutions or individuals behind them – whether it’s uncovering concealed American IT trade secrets, news-gathering information between The New York Times reporters, or codes for leisurely video games.
Where it has only recently reached the level of international espionage are experts tempted to inject violent terms such ‘cyberwarfare’ — though many actions that would qualify in this category go largely invisible to the internet using public.
Although the information super highway is omnipresent and ever growing, it is still largely elusive, making the wide-ranging possibilities of cyberattacks concept difficult to digest or place in an immediate context.
Similar to any severe threat weaved into our working environment, from economic collapse to missile launches, cyberwarfare damage has great potentials of influencing and affecting the grand schemes of our lives.
UPDATE: As 12:36 p.m., further reports indicate that up to 70 million shoppers were affected by the Target breach, and that additional personal information was stolen.