Cyber warfare by definition is the use of computer technology to disrupt activities of a state or organization. Attacks can bring down official government or company websites and networks, disrupt and even disable essential services and much frightening, harming major facilities and infrastructure networks, steal or amend classified data, bring down financial systems and even decide the outcome of a superpower’s presidential election.
Cyberwarfare in more recent years has risen up the rankings as one of the more effective forms of war, used with the intent of inflicting harm over presiding governments and damaging economies, without the costly exercise of taking up arms.
The covert nature of cyber warfare is more akin to the cold war era of spy games, with superpowers and even the less powerful, raising the stakes, while we common folk sit back and ponder how fortunate we are to be living in relatively peaceful times, particularly in the West.
Estimates suggest that as many as 120 countries have developed ways to use the internet as a weapon and enter the fray, targeting government computer systems, utilities and of course, the financial markets.
The Cyber Cold War
Within Asia, China will certainly have one of the more advanced cyber armies, with estimates suggesting that China may have as many as 100,000 cyber soldiers today. It’s no secret that China has been using private sector specialists in its cyber offensive, in what is considered to be a decentralized network of cyber soldiers.
China is probably considered public enemy number one when it comes to cyber war, with the Chinese having been accused of being responsible for an array of cyber-attacks in Canada, France, India, Russia and, of course, the U.S., to name just a few of its more revered casualties of cyberwar.
An apparent agreement between the U.S and China of mutually assured restraint may well be as good as the handshake made at the time of the agreement, with China amongst other advanced nations having entered what some dub as the dawn of a Cyber Cold War.
Despite the handshake between China and the U.S, made during Obama’s time in office, the U.S State Department continues to publicly state that Chinese cyber-attacks against U.S companies remain ongoing.
Perhaps one of China’s generals in cyber warfare is Huawei, a company started just 30 years ago by Reng Zhengfei, a former civil engineer in the PLA and also a member of China’s Communist Party. Its telecommunications capabilities and support from the Chinese government certainly support the view that the Company is in bed with the Chinese government and engaged in covert operations.
Back in 2011, Huawei was in fact banned by the U.S government from bidding for the tender for the U.S emergency communications network, with the ban still effective for any projects of national strategic importance. It was only the following year that the Australian government blocked a Huawei bid to work on the country’s National Broadband Network.
In 2013, the UK government completed a cyber-security review and concluded that enhancements were required. The review is over cyber threats from Huawei’s cybersecurity center in Southern England. The Indian government has also faced some home truths, with certain departments within Huawei’s Indian office off-limits to locally employed staff.
Not only is the founder of Huawei a member of the Party’s army, but also a member of the Communist Party of China and if you’re looking for a clearly defined org chart on who sits where and responsible for what, it may be easier to get the NSA’s org chart.
It is worth pointing out that like any war, nations may be engaged in either defense, offense or both, with many nations having to partake in the interest of national security.
Other countries heavily involved and considered advanced in Cyberwarfare include Russia, with last year’s U.S Presidential Election and surprise Trump victory being attributed more to the will of the Russian Cyber Army and Putin than the voting population of the U.S.
According to Bloomberg, the Russians had targeted as many as 39 states across the U.S., though the U.S is certainly not the only victim to fall foul of Russia’s cyber-attacks, with Ukraine earlier in the year accusing the Russians of attacking its security service system, which spread globally affecting companies as distant as Australia. The alleged attacks on the Ukraine are not the first and are unlikely to be the last.
Ransomware attacks have become all the more popular in recent times, reaching as far as attacks on Bitcoin currency and, while North Korea continues to parade its military capabilities, the Kim Jong-Un regime is also known to be into cyber warfare, with the cyber army more commonly known as Unit 180, sitting within the North Korean’s main spy agency. Targets for Unit 180 include the U.S, South Korea and a number of other countries and, while North Korea vehemently denies the claims, investigations have found evidence that point to North Korea being involved in the global WannaCry “ransomware” cyber attack that hit over 300,000 computers in 150 countries in May. The attack even managed to lock some UK hospitals out of their IT systems, causing operations to be canceled.
North Korea has also been linked to a cyber-attack on the Bangladesh Central Bank, where a reported $81m was stolen and also an attack on Sony’s Hollywood studio.
Cyber-attacks similar to the North Korean Bangladesh Central Bank heist would certainly explain where the nation has sourced its funds to develop nuclear capabilities and weaponry now capable of reaching U.S soil. Defectors have affirmed that Unit 180 is engaged in the hacking of financial institutions and withdrawing funds from bank accounts, with members of Unit 180 traveling overseas to access more advanced internet services as victims unable to trace the attacks back to North Korea.
With the Far East catching up in cyber warfare, as power continues to ebb towards China, EU defense ministers just this week took part in a simulated cyber-attack exercise for the first time, the exercise is used to raise awareness of the possible impact of cyber-attacks on the military in particular.
While we have discussed the victims and the aggressors, the new cyber cold war is a global one, with nations not requiring the US Dollars or the sheer numbers to inflict significant damage and disruption on a global scale.
Unsurprisingly, the U.S sits as the nation has the best offensive cyber capabilities, the National Security Agency has been and continues to be involved in an array of big brother and clandestine operations.
To put the scale of the U.S cyber army into perspective, the headquarters of the U.S cyber spy division is considered to be equivalent to the size of a U.S city, with the NSA headquarters not only heavily armed, but also has its own police force. And it just keeps getting bigger, with the NSA’s cyber spies recently joining forces with U.S Cyber Command, which is responsible for the U.S Cyber Army, Cyber Airforce, Cyber Marine Corps and Cyber Navy.
To the NSA’s embarrassment, it was Snowden’s revelations that publicized just how advanced the U.S was in the race to cyber supremacy and it certainly just caused for other nations to take note and catch up.
Snowden had also stated that the U.S is intent on turning the internet into a battleground for war, with the U.S government looking to attain Information Dominance.
Perhaps surprisingly will be Israel’s assumed ranking of number 2 in the rankings, with the U.S and Israel agreeing to collaborate on fighting off cyber-attacks, Israel too has been a victim of ransomware over the summer. Israeli intelligence is well known across the world and some say that Israel leads cyber warfare technology. The need to monitor Iran, in particular, and its progress in nuclear and cyber capabilities considered key to the stability of the region. Underground, there is a battle between Israel and the US versus Iran, Russia and perhaps China.
There will be some debate over who comes 3rd, China or Russia, with both considered particularly active, when considering some of the cyber-attacks hitting the headlines in recent years, which leaves Iran and North Korea, who are assumed to have similar capabilities, ranking behind what may ultimately be a China – Russia collaboration to take over the world, or at least battle against the might of the U.S.
So, with the U.S sitting at the helm and way ahead of the field, the aggressor has certainly fallen victim to cyber-attacks and we will expect the developed world to play catch up, not because there is concern over the NSA listening in, that has been going on since the ‘50s, but because countries like Iran, North Korea, and even Russia are intent on causing material disruption and even influence democracies across the globe. Lessons learned from the actions of an American past and perhaps even present.
Big brother has always been the U.S, but it now has some younger brothers and in the modern age of technology, they are likely to grow up quickly.
One can only imagine the prospect of a combination of Artificial Intelligence and advanced Cyber warfare technology. Such a world and such a prospect is a chilling one to consider, with access to nuclear codes, central banks, financial systems, the military and the corporate world, as we know it today, likely to leave mankind pondering on whoever came up with such a devastating idea.
We’re not there yet, but our governments are in a hurry and it won’t be long before the cyber war evolves into something more than just spy games.