The threat of cyber warfare has finally arrived


The Russian-Ukrainian conflict could trigger a massive cyberwar, new scientist Assumed. Unprecedented cyberwar is likely, Senator Marco Rubio warned. Hacker group Anonymous reportedly launched a cyberwar against the Russian government.

Cyberwar sounds bad – and it is. Basically, it names the global threat of combat mixed with computer stuff. But other explanations for its risks tend to turn into baffling shopping lists of vulnerabilities: our power grids, water treatment plants, communications networks and banks, all of which could be subject to attack. dark and invisible incursions on the other side of the world. This dark and expansive threat can even be stretched to cover everything, including espionage, disinformation, and attacks on IT infrastructure. Cyberwar is coming! If you’re going to worry about it – and you probably should – then what, exactly, should you worry about?

In all other subjects, computer science-everything that has not been used for a long time; it is now a shibboleth for those who have failed to keep up with online culture. (Remember how it sounded when Donald Trump left about “cyber“on TV?) In 1993, when the word cyber war, as used today, was coined, the prefix had more coinage. That year, the Rand Corporation published a pamphlet titled Cyberwar is coming!, by international policy analysts John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt. Their premise was simple: the information revolution would change the nature of armed conflict, and a new language would be needed to describe it.

To clarify future risks, they presented two scenarios, each with its own nickname: There was cyber warand also netwar. The latter – with its dated reference to the “net” – seems even more anachronistic than “the cyber”, but the idea is surprisingly contemporary. For Arquilla and Ronfeldt, netwar is a social and commercial phenomenon. It involves conflict waged through networked modes of communication and comes closest to what people today call “misinformation.” When a group attempts to disrupt another group’s knowledge of its own members and the social context, by means of messages transmitted via networked communication technologies, it is the war of the networks.

At the time, Arquilla and Ronfeldt imagined network warfare primarily as a state-based activity that could be deployed on any communication network. (There was no need to involve the Internet.) The United States engaged in a network war with Cuba, for example, through Radio Televisión Marti, a Miami-based broadcaster funded by the U.S. federal government to transmit in Spanish in Cuba. State newspapers could also pursue a network war, as well as surveillance systems that intercept or ban certain telephone or electronic messages.

But Rand also envisioned another kind of online warfare, one between “rival non-state actors, with governments maneuvering from the margins to avoid collateral damage to national interests and perhaps to support one side or another.” Arquilla and Ronfeldt called this type of netwar “the most speculative”, but it’s the one we can see pretty clearly now. When social media platforms such as Facebook and technology companies such as Google began storing and disseminating information on a large scale, these platforms became the levers that sparked ideological conflicts. Governments like that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia can, and do, deliberately manipulate these mechanisms in order to produce or aggravate social fractures. Other state actors have struggled to stop or even detect these measures, especially when they cannot exercise much control over wealthy global corporations.

Today, netwar has been replaced by disinformationbut the distinction between the two ideas is useful. Disinformation was a Cold War neologism, a loanword from the Russian dezinformatsiyawhich refers to targeted propaganda, that is, messages whose meaning is intended to deceive. netwar refers to the manipulation of the communication networks themselves. The ease of creating and delivering messages has increased dramatically, thanks in particular to the global conquest of technology companies that promote the flow of information in order to monetize the attention around it. Netwar strategists learn to use these platforms effectively. Netwar’s tactics could deploy disinformation campaigns, but not necessarily. The content of the messages may seem innocuous, but their frequency, sources, distribution and delivery may not be.

But computers do much more than provide human-readable information. They also use information to operate things, such as roadblocks and payment systems. When an attacker deliberately disrupts these systems, it is cyber warfare.

Military operations have always deployed tactics to destroy roads and bridges, airports and factories. Such action can disrupt military operations themselves or destabilize the cultural and economic center of its targets. But these days almost everything is run by computers. Not just communication systems such as telephony and news media, but also vehicles, power plants and banking systems. Worse still, many of these systems are connected to the Internet, making them far more vulnerable to attack than they would have been a generation ago (or even more recently). Your car, which is run by computers, may be able to download software updates, which means it can be disabled remotely. Your doorbell might be a computer now, and if so, it’s probably an untrusted computer, so botnets could use it as an intermediary to distribute or enable malware to carry out attacks. attacks on more crucial targets.

Unlike network warfare, Arquilla and Ronfeldt viewed cyberwarfare as a fundamentally state activity. This is not because governments are the only entities capable of carrying out computer attacks; rather, it is because state conflicts could benefit from cyber warfare strategies. One line from Rand’s article sums up the idea with both lucidity and terror: “As an innovation in warfare, we foresee that cyber warfare could be in the 21st century what blitzkrieg was in the 20th century.

Precedents for cyber warfare have been difficult to catalog, in part because the agents who carried them out have been difficult to identify. A 2007 DDoS attack (which overwhelms a computer with traffic) on Estonian websites appeared to retaliate against the country’s removal of a Soviet statue. A similar attack preceded the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, a clear enough example of cyber warfare as an infotech blitzkrieg, but one that didn’t make a mark, due to the relatively low adoption of the internet in the world. former soviet republic. In 2010, an American-Israeli partnership deployed a computer worm known as Stuxnet, which destroyed Iranian facilities believed to be enriching nuclear weapons. There are others.

But the most legitimate and identifiable example of cyber warfare remains largely singular: Russian malware attack on Ukrainian energy services in 2015, after taking Crimea the year before. The effort very briefly knocked out electricity to hundreds of thousands of people. Related efforts followed, targeting Ukrainian banks, transport infrastructure and ports. These incursions were, and remained, primarily a warning that cyber warfare was now possible in earnest.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine this week has not yet, to our knowledge, involved a major cyberattack. But the Crimean precedent, combined with Putin’s threats against anyone who might intervene, has made cyber warfare a global issue. Proximity doesn’t matter. At any time, at least in theory, your bank accounts, electricity, aqueducts and everything in between could crash. The result could be catastrophic.

In 1993, Arquilla and Ronfeldt’s prediction of a “transformation of the nature of warfare” might have seemed to go too far. The earlier transformation in the nature of warfare had grown out of the deliberate and planned buildup of nuclear weapons by a few selected superpowers: an active buildup of strategic arsenals. The threat of cyber warfare, on the other hand, is more tied to a global stockpile of vulnerabilities, accumulated accidentally as a byproduct of continuous innovations in connectivity. In the end, the sensation is the same: an omnipresent and imminent presentiment of risk. Cyber ​​warfare is real.

Suggested countermeasures, both for network warfare and cyber warfare, have recently made the rounds. We’ve been advised to slow down our sharing and consumption of information: stop, investigate the source, find better coverage and trace the allegations, disinformation researcher Mike Caulfield suggests in a model he calls SIFT. At the same time, IT departments issue reminders to keep our systems up to date and watch out for phishing emails. But these individual and local efforts go no further. A single introspective clicker on social media can do little to slow the spread of lies, and even savvy employees can’t close the security holes created by connected gadgets.

The risks of netwar and cyberwar are consequences of convenience. Communication networks have become widespread, instantly delivering previously unthinkable amounts of tailored content. As they skyrocketed and multiplied, they provided more opportunities for exploitation that could affect larger populations much faster. Meanwhile, businesses and government operations have chosen to support new vulnerabilities in their IT infrastructure to gain operational convenience. These conveniences once seemed worth it. Not anymore.

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