We all know how wars are fought. Historically, large battles between armies occurred with guns, tanks, planes, and artillery–a physical standoff. But in today’s age, war has extended beyond physical space and into cyberspace.
Cyber armies deployed by nations are hacking emails, seizing funds from bank accounts, influencing public opinion, stealing state secrets, spreading fake information through social media sites, and shutting down power grids. The amount of power that a cyber warfare department can project is so great that in the past couple of decades, cyberwar has grown from an experimental field to a full military branch used effectively by countries such as Russia, China, and the US.
Governments around the world are exploiting our ever-increasing reliance on the Internet and Internet-connected technologies. Nearly everything, from military communications to government operations, to transportation systems and city infrastructure grids, to text messages and phone calls, rely on Internet-connected computer systems to operate. A hacker installing a virus into these systems can sabotage cellphone networks, prevent people from accessing their personal devices, spread misleading information, or even cripple key assets and online servers used by national security agencies. And unlike conventional warfare, cyber attacks can be launched instantaneously, from any distance, with very little noticeable evidence of buildup or planning.
Consequently, governments are racing to improve their computer security to guard against the possibility that, in the event of a war, hackers will bypass traditional defences with just a few keystrokes. But preparing defences against hostile actors has, in turn, encouraged these governments to develop their own cyber warfare capabilities to be used offensively. Some countries, such as Russia, have developed their own offensive operations and domestically made viruses. Other countries, such as the US, prefer to be more passive and do more spying rather than directly confront another nation state. The use of cyberspace for government-related goals has grown immensely in the last couple of decades. The US’s spending on cyber warfare assets rose from $7.5 billion in 2007 to $28 billion in 2016. This four-fold leap in government spending just shows how critical of an asset a cyber army could be.
Spying is one of the more common, and therefore, more heavily-funded types of cyber warfare. As revealed by Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, the US developed a global surveillance program that includes included security breaches, phone calls, text messages, online activity, and fibre optic cable tapping. Another example is China’s “Titan Rain” program. Since 2003, computers linked to China have been attacking and spying in American computer systems used by defence contractors, such as Lockheed Martin, NASA, and Redstone Arsenal. Their precise nature is still unknown however, as the hackers were masked behind a combination of proxies, zombie computers, and VPNs. The NSA believes that the People’s Liberation Army of China was involved, as the severity of the attack, coupled with the organization of each operation, would have most likely not been possible without state sponsoring.
The Internet age has also changed the nature of psychological warfare–the techniques used to influence how people in a foreign country think. Simply put, a government will try to sway the another population’s opinion in ways that support their interests. One of the most prominent recent examples of this is Russia’s involvement in politics both during and beyond the 2016 US presidential election. Russia’s cyber warfare department is very well-developed in comparison to most nations today, as their sheer military strength isn’t up to par against other countries, such as the US. Russian Web Brigades, also known as “troll farms,” are groups of government-backed hackers and trolls that try to influence the public opinion in target countries. One troll farm in particular, called the Internet Research Agency, used fake bank accounts and documents to spread misleading information on the Internet about potential candidates for presidency in the US. The IRA also used social media platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to influence voters in the US. Thousands of fake bot accounts circulate pro-Trump and anti-Clinton hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, such as #Hillary4Prison or #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. More than 80 workers for the FSB/GRU were assigned to this troll farm, which was based in St. Petersburg, Russia. As a result, 13 Russian nationals were charged for fraud in the US in February in connection with the IRA’s actions.
Although these are very effective and important types of cyber activities, there are some more dangerous ones. Sabotage is possibly the most feared of all. This occurs when a country attacks power grids, city infrastructure, missile systems, or communication lines. The effects of it can be devastating, and it can cripple a country’s ability to defend itself in a war. In 2015, a cyber attack on three energy distribution companies in Ukraine caused a temporary blackout that affected 230,000 people. The hackers had also performed a distributed denial of service attack on call centres, so no one affected by the blackout could find up-to-date information. This was the first successful cyber attack on a power grid. Ukrainian government officials identified the attack as originating from a Russian group called “Sandworm” that has been actively harassing Ukraine since 2014, destroying thousands of computers, infecting terabytes of government data, and paralyzing transportation infrastructure. Sandworm has had a specific interest in power grids; in 2014, they were detected intruding into American power companies, using the same malware they used in the Ukrainian attack a year later.
Hackers can also target military installations. In 2015, hackers nearly gained control of a German missile battery, which would enable them to be able to fire at civilians or friendly military targets. The identity of the hackers remains unknown, as the German government was unable to track them down. Although no actual damage has been done because of this attack, it was perceived as a wake up call to other countries around the globe. The fact that a country’s missile systems can be hacked easily, without any trace left behind, threatens catastrophic results.
Ultimately, cyber warfare is an increasingly common asset in a modern military. The importance of it cannot be dismissed. Since it is so new, and with the added fact that computer coding is always evolving, new types of malware and attacks always threaten to bring a country to its knees.