Cyber Warfare: The New Arms Race

After spending billions to build nuclear weapons, a different arms race has emerged in cyber warfare. Where the nuclear arms race pits the larger countries against each other, the cyber arms race includes a much larger number of combatants since it is open to almost anyone with cash and a computer, according to a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal.

The article noted that computer attacks by countries against each other have kicked off a frantic digital arms race with nations racing to develop stockpiles of malicious code.

One reflection of the seriousness of this new arms race is that two longtime cyber adversaries, the U.S. and China, agreed last month not to conduct certain cyber attacks against one another.

Cyber Arsenal Has Multiple Offerings

There are a multitude of weapons in a cyber arsenal.

Some of the types of attacks that counties can use include denial of service, sleeper malware, phishing, tricking radar and infrastructure sabotage. The major players in this new cyber warfare include the U.S., Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. But other countries are becoming more active.

Nuclear rivals Pakistan and India regularly hack one another’s companies and government. Estonia and Belarus are developing shields against Russia. In addition, Denmark, the Netherlands, Argentina and France have begun to develop offensive computer weapons.

At least 29 nations have military or intelligence groups focused on offensive hacking. The Wall Street Journal based this assessment on government records and interviews with government officials.

Around 50 countries have purchased off-the-shelf hacking software for surveillance purposes.

Where the “MAD” acronym – mutually assured destruction – characterized the nuclear arms race, that acronym stands for “mutually assured doubt” in the cyber arms race, according to one researcher, because you can never be sure what attack will occur.

Governments have used computer attacks to accomplish many tasks, such as stealing information, erasing computers, disabling financial networks and in one case destroying nuclear centrifuges.

Governments have explored using cyber weapons to destroy utility grids, undermine airline networks, interrupt Internet connectivity, confuse radar systems and remove funds from bank accounts.

Small Players Can Compete In This War

This new type of warfare evens the playing field between large and small countries, the report noted since cyber attacks are hard to prevent and trace.

Cyber weapon access is more widespread than nuclear weapon access, due to less costly technologies and distributed computing.

Most government-initiated cyber attacks involve cyber spying, which refers to breaking into computer networks to steal data. The more aggressive cyber weapons can erase computer records and destroy physical property.

The U.S. is most concerned about cyber weapons held by China, Russia, Iran and North Korea since these nations have initiated advanced attacks into the U.S. government networks and large U.S. companies.

Cyber warfare units are often connected to a country’s military and/or its intelligence services.

Chinese hackers have established a reputation for low-tech “phishing,” the sending of disguised emails to get a company’s employees or a government’s bureaucrats to allow the attackers access to their computer networks. This is how the U.S. thinks the Chinese were able to recently penetrate the Office of Personnel Management that compromised more than 21 million people’s records.

Russians have focused on diplomatic and political data and have gained access to unclassified networks at U.S. government offices.

Russians have stolen the daily schedule of President Obama and State Department correspondence, according to sources, although the Russians denied this.

Russian attackers also try to hide stolen data in regular network traffic. A piece of malware in one instance conceals its communications in consumer web services to evade cybersecurity defenses.

Also read: Nuclear facilities are in ‘denial’ to the risk of a ‘serious cyber attack.’

Iran Plays Hard

Iranians have allegedly been able to destroy computers twice using cyber weapons. Investigators believe Iranian attackers placed a virus on computers of Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s largest company, in 2012. The attack erased three-quarters of the computers and replaced screen images with images of American flags burning.

Iran used malware to destroy computers at Las Vegas Sands Corp. last year, according to James R. Clapper, director of National Intelligence. The casino is owned by Sheldon Adelson, a major Iran critic.

Iran in 2012 announced the creation of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, the purpose of which is to defend Iran’s computer networks and create new ways of attacking enemies’ computer networks.

North Korea destroyed computer files at the Hollywood film unit of Sony Corp. in 2014, according to U.S. officials, allegedly retaliating for a satirical movie about Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s dictator. The FBI said North Korea implanted malware on Sony computers, enabling them to steal and destroy records.

Many cybersecurity experts consider the U.S. to have the most advanced cyber weapons.

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who famously leaked documents, showed NSA implanted malware on tens of thousands of foreign computers which gave the government access to data to control the power plant and pipeline systems. The U.S. Cyber Command at the Pentagon did respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. Cyber Command currently has nine mission teams and has plans for four more. Such teams include 60 military personnel to conduct cyberspace operations.

An attack on Hacking Team, an Italian company, showed the company sold surveillance tools to various countries.

National security officials and cyber weapon experts worry that a cyber-attack could eventually become problematic since there is a lot that is not known about what some countries are doing.

Images from Shutterstock.

Lester Coleman is a veteran business journalist based in the United States. He has covered the payments industry for several years and is available for writing assignments.