Modern Day Cyber Warfare: In the Hands of Hackers

In recent years, an increasing number of sophisticated cyber attacks have rattled the international community.

Image by Christiaan Cohen/Flickr

Image by Christiaan Cohen/Flickr

With the Ransomware Wanna Decryptor (WannaCry) strain cyber attack as the most recent, which affected an estimated 16 UK hospitals as well as establishments in several other countries, there have been some equally riveting cyber attacks including the malware targeting SCADA systems in power centers, as in the case in Ukraine in December 2015. Considering the magnitude and increasing level of institutional harm contemporary cyber attacks engender, several points of inquiry emerge: Can notions regarding balance of power be applied in cyber space, a space primarily anarchic in nature? Should cyber warfare then be considered its own power dimension, separate from notions of hard and soft power? Along with understanding the form and function of cyber space and of cyber warfare, it is clear actors, at all levels, need to take proactive steps in understanding the contours of the risk-ridden cyber community they operate in – before cyber damage causes irreversible systemic damage.

First and foremost, in order to properly navigate these queries, it is necessary to understand cyber warfare in theory and in practice. Richard A. Clarke, U.S government security expert, defines it as the “actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption.” In response to such attacks, cyber security measures, which involve technologies, processes and practices designed to protect networks, computers, and programs from unauthorized access, have been put into place. One thing is clear however: cyber security systems are not foolproof. Breaches have been taking place at every level ‘exponentially.’ As Wagner puts it,   “In December 2015, a presumed Russian cyber-attacker successfully seized control of the Prykarpattyaoblenergo Control Center (PCC) in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of Western Ukraine, leaving 230,000 without power for up to 6 hours. This marked the first time that a cyber weapon was successfully used against a nation’s power grid.” Furthermore, not only are governments affected by cyber warfare, but also businesses. According to Tim Ross’s Bloomberg article, “Cyber attacks continue to cost businesses billions annually, a sum that is only likely going up with the increasing integration of new technologies into daily operations.” Furthermore, officials contend the near impossible feat to trace attackers ‘quickly and reliably’ as most cyber hackers operate in the dark web.

So far, it is clear cyber warfare is very much alive and a great security threat on all levels of society, especially highly secured government and infrastructural levels. This is very telling on several fronts. First, it shows the inherently imbalanced “balance of power” structure in hacker cyber space. Major power government agencies (i.g. Russia, China, the United States) as well as individuals, such as Jester, and small-knit groups, such as Anonymous, have the capability to cause significant cyber damage and, even physical structural damage. Traditional notions regarding balance of power can therefore not be entirely sustained in the cyber world. This brings us to our next point: anyone can be the hacker in cyber space. State-sponsored Western hackers and their Eastern counterparts can cause equal damage, although their relative medias portray otherwise. Emily Parker presents an interesting case, detailing how current perceptions view the United States as the victim of such breaches, although, historically, the United States has in fact been at the center of cyber space aggression. As outlined by Kaplan, in using ‘counter command control warfare,’ or the act of inhibiting an enemy and controlling its forces using malware, the United States killed at least 4,000 Iraqi insurgents during the Iraq War. Furthermore, the most ambitious attack to date has been the sabotage of Iran’s nuclear programme, also known as Operation Olympic Games, by American and Israeli forces using Stuxnet malware. This malware was the first to cause damaging, physical, electromagnetic changes to Iran’s nuclear facilities. As Kaplan iterates, the irony is very real. The United States, which attacked the critical infrastructure of an enemy, now finds itself vulnerable to similar treatment, as cyber hackers develop more sophisticated malware.

We are, without a doubt, in an era of unprecedented hacks and structural cyber damage. Cyber warfare defies hard/soft power rationale and the increasing severity of cyber attacks should motivate actors to dedicate considerable resources to cyber intelligence. These developments are sending a clear message: political, financial, electrical power, pipeline transmission, and banking transactions need to be protected now more than ever before, with top of the line cyber security. Navigating the uncertain, cyber reality is no easy feat, but it, nonetheless, offers an opportunity for rich commentary, paradigmatic revaluation, and, most importantly, improved security measures.

Enrica Ferrarotti

Enrica Ferrarotti

Enrica Ferrarotti is a multi-national who lives between Europe and the United States.She recently earned her undergraduate degree from McGill University in political science and business management and developed a keen interest in Asian, Middle Eastern, and European affairs. While she enjoys understanding and comparing political systems and political developments, she also focuses her attention on societal issues. She is currently living in Miami, working on her corporate communication skills, and will be moving to New York City in the next few months. She aspires to specialize in public affairs for international institutions.
Enrica Ferrarotti

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