By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The battlefields are hidden; the action is cloaked in silence. There are no explosions. No blood is spilt, only the persistent click after click of keystrokes fired.
And the casualties keep piling up.
Ladies and gentlemen, enter the dawn of the cyber wars. A relentless emergence of new digital frontiers has opened up a world where skirmishes no longer need to be toiled physically. For many military theorists and defense experts, along with speculators in both global markets and governments alike, the threat of information casts a shadow of serious concern.
Just last week suspicions arose that Russia might be responsible for infiltrating the White House’s unclassified computer systems. This came to a head after a discovery that Russian military aircraft had been flying along the perimeter of NATO territory in Europe.
This might harken back to some chilly memories from the Cold War in which our old opponent poked and prodded our defenses in an effort to better understand them. The only difference is that the cyber landscape can be utilized with far less restraint. While we might be able to identify a pack of Tu-95 Russian bombers hurtling over the Black Sea, the online breach of White House security remains a case unsolved.
These breaches of security are digital hit-and-runs with no tangibility of a smeared conscience left in their wake. All that remains is a sense of lingering paranoia and pointed suspicions.
Cyber warfare, loosely defined, is any politically-motivated hacking aimed toward conducting sabotage, espionage, and/or subversion tactics. If you’re not overtly familiar with it, don’t be too surprised. It’s a relatively new phenomenon whose presence we are only just beginning to reckon with.
The presence of cyber conflict became widely acknowledged after the establishment of the US Cyber Command in 2010. The birth of this organization bears a striking resemblance to the US special operations forces (SOF). Both contain concentrated groups of highly skilled specialists, though it took decades for the SOF to establish itself as the cornerstone of security and perseverance it is today.
The problem stems from a lack of support and resources. Much like the early SOF, US Cyber Command is in need of more funding and better acquisition capabilities. But before we start funneling money into this matrix of computer attack-and-defense, we have an important question to ask ourselves: is it really necessary?
Supporters and opponents are almost evenly divided on the topic, but all debate seems to stem from a central issue: whether or not the term “cyber warfare” actually constitutes a form of warfare.
While some may argue that the term doesn’t exactly fit the criteria outlined by the conventional definitions of warfare, the impending threat of code-borne sabotage is a frightening possibility. Modern industrial control systems such as trains, refineries, and even elevators all share the weakness of remote hacking.
It is also important to realize, however, that at this present moment in time there haven’t been any cases of this. Turns out, it’s a lot more difficult than it sounds to sabotage a control system that is almost always complex and uniquely configured.
The potential for espionage, on the other hand, is something that nobody can deny. It’s a bleeding wound that has been felt by America and Britain, along with much of Europe and Asia. You can banter for days about whether or not it meets the requirements of “war,” but cyber industrial espionage is a frontier we are only just beginning to explore and conquer.
Oil titans are the first targets on a growing list of attacks. A cyber espionage campaign was discovered last year that implicated Russian hackers in infiltrating over a thousand Western oil and gas companies, along with energy investment firms. Given Russia’s reliance on their oil and gas industry, the findings are far from surprising, but that doesn’t diminish their potential for destruction.
The powder keg was first lit close to two years ago in Saudi Arabia. At the headquarters of the world’s largest oil company, ARAMCO, representatives from IBM, McAfee, Microsoft, and others converged to investigate a computer network attack. It had occurred on the eve of “the Night of Power,” a Muslim holy day. The experts soon discovered that the data on nearly 75 percent of the ARAMCO network machines had been destroyed.
An Islamic band of hackers who call themselves the Sword of Justice had single-handedly obliterated the hard-drives of more than 30,000 personal computers. The screen of each machine flashed with the image of an American flag burning.
These may have been some of the first attacks, but they will hardly be the last. From Anonymous to Occupy Wall Street, and radical groups to political subterfuge, the use of these new technologies are beginning to open new avenues of search and destroy.
The aftermath will be as serious as we allow it to be. The true challenge for democracies will be in how to handle balancing the use and restriction of these newfound powers.
We’ll need to learn when to defend against cyber sabotage as well as when to use it when needed. We’ll have to strengthen intelligence agencies while understanding when to contain their power. Perhaps most importantly, we must protect digital liberties while still upholding tenants of the constitution.
Fear is the most deadly enemy to freedom. What we don’t understand, we lose all hope of conquering. The longer we talk of “cyberwar” without understanding it, or without agreeing upon its many constituents and implications, the harder it will become to find rational and even-handed solutions to the problem.