At this point, it is more or less an open secret that we are in the midst of a global war. While humanity can breathe a sigh of relief that full-scale military conflict between the great powers of the world is only a very distant possibility, the main global players are already at each other’s throats in cyberspace. For this exact reason, it is essential to keep up with the latest online privacy threats and scraping techniques. Even without an outbreak of open hostilities, the potential economic and strategic rewards that come with dominating another nation in cyberspace is too great.
Because cyberattacks do not, at least most of the time, cause any physical damage to infrastructure or casualties amongst a population, the calculations involved in deciding whether to execute a cyberattack are very different to a conventional military operation. Nations that would not dream of instigating military conflict with one another may still be willing to authorize large scale cyber-attacks. What’s more, when such attacks are successful, it is often in the interests of the targeted government to keep it quiet rather than admitting their defences have been breached.
Everyone is in on it
In the West, we hear far more about the nefarious cyber activities of China and Russia than our own governments. However, it is important to be aware that just about every nation on Earth is involved in cyber espionage to some extent. China, Russia, and North Korea are all doggedly attacking Western Nations with their cyber capabilities. But it should come as no surprise to learn that the United States and its allies are just as responsible for initiating cyberattacks.
Sometimes these take the form of one nation-state directly attacking the infrastructure of another. However, when it comes to cyber-warfare, we are increasingly seeing nation-states working with private enterprises, or what are essentially paramilitary hacking groups, to provide plausible deniability.
During the Cold War, it became apparent to all but the most die-hard of Soviet politicians that they would never realistically be able to compete with the United States in terms of military hardware. Try as it might, the USSR was simply not capable of producing physical weapons of war that were as sophisticated or as reliable as its opponents. To compensate for this, the Soviet Union took two approaches. The first was designing munitions like the Tsar Bomba. While the United States was pouring an inordinate amount of money into designing missiles that were capable of targeting specific individuals, the USSR built a bomb so big that it didn’t matter where you dropped it.
The other compensating approach was to defeat the Americans on a technological level. The Soviet army focused on sharpening its ability to disrupt American military hardware. It is because of this second approach that Russia today is home to some of the most talented and capable hacking groups in the world, irrespective of the legality or morality of what they do.
An all-out war with the United States remains unlikely but, as we have seen recently in Syria and elsewhere, the potential for proxy conflict between the USA and Russia is just as great as ever.
There is no evidence of Russia’s growing confidence in this field more significant than their interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections. Knowing that any kind of military response would be off the table and knowing that their own cyber capabilities are on par with that of the United States, Russia felt emboldened to interfere in the presidential election. The interference was not exactly open, but Russia has not suffered at all from their activities being revealed to the wider public.
Prior to this, most Americans were familiar with Russian cyber operations because they accounted for a significant portion of cybercrime being undertaken in the country.
Thanks to investigation and exposure of Russia’s interference operation targeting the 2016 elections, we now have solid proof of Russia’s objectives in this field. It would appear that Russia’s primary concern is undermining the West, and American leadership on the global stage more broadly. Anything they can do, such as potentially swinging a presidential election, to make it look like the United States is weak and not in control will benefit Russia enormously.
By contrast, China is playing a much longer game. Many security officials in the United States have already acknowledged their belief that China has burrowed deep into American systems. The general assumption within the US security community is that China has eyes on just about every network connected to the internet.
Whereas Russia is eager to let us know what capabilities they have, to undermine the perceptions of the United States as an impenetrable fortress, China is much more subtle. When Russia infiltrates foreign networks, it does so to make its presence known. China, too, has access to many systems, but it is lying in wait, safe in the knowledge that it can manipulate or attack those systems on command.
Of course, the US and UK are involved in cyber espionage against Russia and China, yet none of the parties are eager to share details with us. In fact, given that the USA and UK are part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network, we can be sure that they are actively working together with regards to intelligence gathering through cyberattacks.
The vast majority of nations are engaged in state-sponsored hacking to some extent. Some governments are motivated by economics – using cyberattacks to weaken their economic rivals or to improve their bargaining position in negotiations.
Nations hacking one another doesn’t concern most people. However, we should be concerned about the fact that so many high-profile cyberattacks in recent years have impacted ordinary people. The infamous WannaCry ransomware attacks, likely set loose by North Korean hackers, caused severe disruption to the UK’s NHS and highlighted how weak and vulnerable many of our most vital systems are against cyberattacks. No one is looking to start an actual war, but everyone is becoming more aggressive in cyberspace. However, it’s only a matter of time before a cyberattack causes some very real casualties.