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Cyber Warfare: Cybercrime at the Digital Frontier


We all grew up reading about the unfortunate yet famous war times. The stories igniting several movies, stringing at the hearts of citizens. From grandparents bearing witness to the battles once fought to today where the theories of who is to blame for what muddled in several stories. Although they occurred generations ago, the collated effects can be seen even today—given how they have affected every country, its economies and lives of its citizens. There are many theories as to how the third world war would take place, but a war, very real, is lingering under the nose of the general public—cyberwarfare.

What is Cyber Warfare?

Cyberwarfare is when politically motivated, cyber-attack driven technologies are used by nation led or international organizations to cause significant damage to another nation’s computers and information systems.

Although this sounds like a phenomenon that you would read in science fiction—it is no more fictional.

There are several incidents today of nation-led cyber attacks carried out on other countries or other organizations.

The reason why this cyberwar looks like the future of warfare between nations is due to the anonymity it brings. Like all cyberattacks, these take longer to detect, hard to track or pinpoint, and can ruin the day to day functions of a nation entirely. It doesn’t cause any noise; neither is there an investment of millions of dollars on the weaponry and no bloodshed. The countries under attack can be completely blindsided.

As the famous Chinese military strategist once said, supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resilience without fighting — the perfect war, which can disrupt without any sound.

Just think about it, how reliant are you on technology today? Not only you but businesses, governments and nations also run on technology. Transmitting information from simple mobile-led networking options to military-grade sensitive communications and transferring money between businesses to world bank transfers are all technology-led. Power grids that essentially hold all the societal verticals together including energy industries and hospitals, and with the current adoption of Internet of Things (IoT), the stakes have just gone higher. Everything is technology-led, one disruption can cause a domino effect of crumbling several infrastructures together.

Cyberwarfare is already happening

Glimpses of the effects of cyberwarfare are already seen. In 2016, Ukraine’s energy companies were infected with a malware that led to an electrical outage of over 100 cities. Upon investigations, Russians were allegedly behind this attack that took Ukraine’s light.

Another example that was quite openly a cyberwar, happened between the US and Iran. Although never confirmed, the US and Israel allegedly created Stuxnet. It is a malware which can cause damage to industrial machinery. This malware was launched into Iran’s nuclear programme which then caused a lot of delays and damaged several centrifuges. And this wasn’t the end goal. It was part of a larger plan called Nitro Zeus (NZ). According to the documentary, Zero Days by Alex Gibney, the NZ, infiltrated the Iran control and command lines, and military air defense systems. This was in efforts to prevent Iran from waging an actual war with Israel.

How do these cyber wars happen?

Cyberwarfare is carried out like any other cybercrime with malware and ransomware, but here the difference lies in the effects that it leaves behind. They can target a smaller organization in the nation as an entry point to a higher attack, and no one would even realize. These attacks are carried out using the common vulnerabilities that exist within any organization—people, their habits and lack of security measures in place to neither prevent nor tackle them.

The popular cyberattack methods like credential stuffing, password spraying, Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), phishing, SQL injections, among others have been the methods that hackers have used for state-led attack as well.

The attacks can look different every time. It does not necessarily have to end up with lights going out. Hackers can even use data manipulation techniques to cause significant damage.

These hackers take advantage of the zero-day vulnerabilities that exist in systems. These are vulnerabilities that haven’t been recognized yet—thus there is no patch to fix it. Nations can even make their list of the zero-day vulnerabilities of other countries and take advantage of them if need be.

The IoT vulnerability in cyberwarfare

The internet of things is celebrated for how it connects devices over the internet. Yet, in this celebration and drive for innovation, security was left behind. Now providers are lapping up security measures over the existing solutions, which has led to a significant security conundrum. Some of the devices are not designed for security measures like encryption and authentication. Now imagine such devices connected, one loophole leaves the entire network vulnerable.

At the Black Hat cybersecurity conference, Microsoft has warned that the Internet of Things devices in your offices may be hacked by Russia-led hackers. Corporate networks can easily serve as an entry point to such hackers.

The magnitude of the IoT hack has no bounds. Black Hat conference of 2018, demonstrated how hack of an IoT device could even open up a dam. The loss this would cause to property, hydroelectric loss and most importantly, the loss of life which is immeasurable.

Read our blog, IoT insecurity to security to understand it better.

How prepared are nations for the cyberwar?

The simple answer to this would be not a lot. Nations have since long been preparing their line of defenses at the border. They are equipped with weapons, and all of us are familiar with the scale at which they are capable of inflicting damage. Nations are aware of cyber warfare and recognize it as a reality, but hardly are there processes and protocols in place to defend them.

There are no clearly defined rules on how to carry out cyber warfare, no limitations on its effects and mostly the way to retaliate are also not defined. This lack of definition is being taken advantage of, rigorously by the nations—no rules to play.

The only formidable rule is that if a cyberwar of a significant scale hits a nation, it can retaliate using their standard military forces. This is in case of a big enough cyber attack. Other methods like sanctions, exile diplomats, and other such methods can be used—but there exists a big grey area on what should and shouldn’t be done.

Although recently, after years of work poured over formulating an international law on cyber warfare, a group of law scholars have created the Tallinn Manual. It is backed by NATO-affiliated Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCoE).

Reports say that over 30 countries are preparing for the cyberwar. The big names in this list of threats are China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

What can be done to prevent cyber warfare?

On a nationwide level, security measures have to go beyond defense lines and include digital front lines. The threat of cyber wars has to be considered seriously.

Cyber deterrence is one way nations can create a strong defense. This makes the computers very hard and expensive for the attackers to break into—this can deter the hackers to look for vulnerabilities elsewhere or invest more in breaking into such systems.

Although what should essentially happen is that not nations, by organizations nationwide have to take this threat seriously. Cut the hacker at the entry point so that it does not become a national emergency.

Besides following best practices in password, robust authentication methods have to be imbibed. Encryption methods have to be ramped up and become mandatory.

Stringent governance policies that tell you who has access to what must become mandatory.

As cybercrimes evolve with AI, companies should leverage them too. Risk engines in organizations must be equipped with the latest in cognitive technologies that see beyond human negligence and skim through every inch of data. Every incoming and outgoing traffic must be monitored effectively, to leave no loose ends.

A complete Identity Management solution is what organizations need to brace themselves against this new wave of warfare – cyber warfare.

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