Each year, more than $400 billion USD is lost from the global economy due to state funded, as well as private, attacks on global industries and infrastructure. These attacks are low risk and extremely high reward and the perpetrators are rarely called to court. Cybercrime and warfare is one of the fastest growing military frontiers. America, Iran, North Korea, Russia and China are all funding and expanding their ever-growing cyber armies. But what are their goals? What damage can they do? Unfortunately, ‘classified documents’ get in the way of a full understanding of the scope of current operations. However, this is a brief explainer of where we are and what the future holds.
The Opening Ceremony of Cyber Warfare
George W. Bush first carried the Olympic torch (so to speak) of cyber warfare. He swiftly passed it to Barack Obama, who then upped the ante and launched the first offensive act of cyber sabotage during peacetime. The name of the operation: Olympic Games. The target: The Iranian Nuclear Program. We know this because the virus that aimed to crash nuclear power plant machinery and burst oil pipelines went rogue and was transmitted via USB to more than 50,000 devices worldwide. However, the virus lay dormant on these devices as it was programmed only to target the computer switchboard of the centrifuges that spin nuclear material in Iran’s nuclear power facilities. This weapon was clever, targeted and expensive to develop; it had to have been funded by a state. In late 2010, the UN Nuclear Watchdog reported that Iran had suspended work at their nuclear facilities without explaining why. This was the first time a weapon had been created and released through computers entirely. It will not be the last.
Iran responded to the attack by calling for hackers to join the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to launch counterattacks against the US and Israel, who they perceived to be the creators of the cyber weapon. To this day, neither the US or Israel have acknowledged their involvement in the creation of the weapon. However, various leaks from officials have confirmed both the knowledge and involvement of the two countries. Besides the questionable ethics of attacking a country’s infrastructure during peacetime, a huge concern that has come from Operation Olympic Games is how accessible the weapon now is. Due to its viral nature, the code of the weapon is freely available online to download, where there are even YouTube videos which show people sifting through the different lines of code and determining how it works. This weapon that was able to temporarily halt a country’s nuclear program, switch off oil pipelines and power grids is now as easily accessed as any album download or online film. We are yet to see which nation or criminal group will be the first to tweak the recipe and create a new and improved weapon
What’s happening next?
Cybercrime and cyber attacks are a rapidly growing industry, and with our dependence on the internet for both business and infrastructure services (such as energy and water systems), the opportunities for attacks only grows greater. Furthermore, the number of potential attackers has now expanded beyond nations to private collectives as well, with more than 20 cyber crime groups in Russia alone which, according to a European intelligence official, have the capacities of a ‘nation state’. The US has already allocated $35 billion USD to the newly-elevated Cyber Command Agency which is part of the Pentagon – signaling a huge increase and focus on cyber warfare techniques. Moreover, Iran is no longer the sole target of America’s cyber power; the Deputy Defense Secretary at the Pentagon confirmed that they have developed their program and are now ‘dropping cyber bombs’ against ISIS.
While the use of cyber weapons is relatively new in the military landscape, the employment of these types of weapons will only increase and the damage will only become greater. Discussions between our world leaders are urgently needed to establish the boundaries of this new area of military. International laws for cyberspace are non-existent. After the invention of nuclear weapons and biological warfare, treaties were put in place to protect citizens and this needs to occur with cyber warfare.
However, the current distrust between states is too great for any talks to even begin. After leaked classified documents proved that the United States had been hacking and conducting secret surveillance on high level officials in China, the Chinese President has refused to come to any truce agreements with the United States. Practically, if treaties and laws were developed, a country’s compliance would be near impossible to verify due to the ability to remain anonymous in the world of cyberspace and hacking. In the last 10 years, London’s Scotland Yard, the Pentagon, Interpol, US bank sites and Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology have all suffered from cyber attacks. While the scope and severity of these attacks may be difficult to grasp due to their contained and covert nature, as technology advances, the human effect of shut down energy grids and breaches of bank infrastructure will become more apparent. Whether or not Australia is recruiting for our own cyber army I am unsure – but the possibility is no longer farfetched or dystopian, but real.