What the Future of Cyber War Holds
The war in Ukraine has dominated global news since it began earlier this year. Every day, people around the world hear harrowing tales of physical warfare. What people may be less familiar with is the cyber component to the conflict. Just hours before Russian troops invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian government was hit by new malware designed to wipe data from hard drives. In the first 10 weeks of 2022 (before the official invasion), over 150 cyberattacks were launched against Ukraine. Hackers disables more than 70 government websites, and the FBI asked US companies to alert them of “any increased [cyber]activity against Ukraine or US critical infrastructure.” The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a “shields up” alert to all organizations.
Has cyber warfare already arrived? For Russia, the war with Ukraine is likely serving as a live testing ground for their newest generation of cyber weapons. Ukraine is a logical testing ground because the country’s tech infrastructure is similar to that of Western Europe and North America. Yet unlike those regions, Ukraine has limited resources for counter attacks. Cyber attacks in this vein have grown steadily over time. In 2015, suspected Russian hackers knocked out electricity services for 230,000 people in west Ukraine. A year later, a similar attack targeted Ukrainian government agencies and financial establishments. Then in 2017, “Not Petya” attacked Ukraine, wiping computers in the financial, business, and power grid sectors.
Now in 2022, the US and EU have provided cyber defense support to Ukraine, but cyber attacks don’t recognize national borders. Another approach to fighting back has been for pro-Ukrainian hackers to target Russian websites. These attacks are more likely to cause panic and chaos than target critical infrastructure. They scan wide swaths of the internet, searching for vulnerable devices. Such attacks can lead to collateral damage outside Russia.
In the business world, half of American tech executives think state-sponsored cyber warfare is their biggest threat. Many of them also say that defining national cybersecurity protocols should be a top priority for the country. Cyber war grows more dangerous by the day. The distinctions between cyber and physical assets are diminishing. This merger brings greater risk to both network and physical infrastructure security.
In 2021, data breaches and cyber attacks cost companies an average of $4.24 million per preach. That’s 10% costlier than the previous year. The pandemic has heightened the potential danger cyber threats possess. More information has moved to the cloud. More services are being provided digitally, including essential ones like banking and healthcare. More people are also working remotely on home networks and personal devices. Home networks and personal devices tend to be less secure than company-wide networks or devices.
The one saving grace in the world as it is today is that most cyber attacks are relatively isolated incidents. Cyber attacks tend to over faster than a cyber war would. Fully realized, cyber warfare could have impacts on the scale of a natural disaster. For example, knocking out a power grid could create similar conditions to the 2021 Texas Freeze. Millions of people would lose electricity, food storage, and water access. It would be a massive disruption to daily life, and hundreds of people would die. All without risking the lives of actual troops.
Cyber war has a distinct place in the American imagination. 93% of Americans know to fear cyber war. Only 19% believe the government can protect its citizens against such a threat. Yet despite this pessimism, most people still agree the US is the most secure against cyber attacks. The next countries in line are Japan, China, and Germany. These widespread perceptions suggest that even though the US is in a good position relative to other countries, there is still a lot more the country can do to protect itself.
The most common cyber attacks are distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. DDoS attacks seek to make a resource unavailable to users. When Americans can’t access their finances, internet, or health records, they become very afraid. American companies and citizens alike are looking for protective measures they can take. Many risk-reducing practices don’t require a great deal of tech savviness. For example, keeping all software for computers and mobile devices up to date is critically important for keeping devices safe. Backing up important documents offline reduces the chance of losing them to a cyber attack.
Cyber attacks have complicated the face of war. American companies need to prepare themselves and their organizations with a strong defense.
Written by Brian Wallace.
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