Battles fought in this domain will not be waged by the world’s armies, navies, or air and space forces.
Attacks will beam across oceans over glass fibers at the speed of light, course over copper wires on carefully modulated electron pulses or ride through the ether on electromagnetic waves.
These shadowy battles of the future will be fought in cyberspace and the weapons themselves will be binary-encoded signals propagating across the global network known as the Internet.
In 2007, Russian hackers completely incapacitated Estonia’s national infrastructure because of tensions between the Estonian and Russian governments. For nearly three weeks, Estonia’s financial system and government resources were disrupted as more than a million “enslaved” botnet computers from 175 countries were hijacked for a coordinated attack.
This cyber-attack not only turned Estonia’s IT industry into the country’s digital militia, bit it also made developed nations sit up and take notice. Of course, it is easy to think of Estonia’s infrastructure as small and that America easily has enough IT resources to handle a cyberattack, but that is not necessarily the case.
The U.S. itself is not stranger to waging war in the cyber-realm. The Stuxnet worm, the most sophisticated piece of malware ever designed, is believed to have originally been created by the U.S. and Israel to deter Iran from progressing in their nuclear capabilities.
Unfortunately, Stuxnet has, in some respects, backfired. The computer worm broke out of Iran’s nuclear facilities, perhaps through an infected laptop that was connected to the Internet. The software, designed to propagate virally, spread beyond its intended target and across the Internet at large, infecting private computers and networks. Since then, it has spawned imitators who have exploited its code base for new attacks.
Let it not be said that there will not be collateral damage in the new domain of war!
The largest target of all, however, may be the U.S. itself. In May of this year, U.S. intelligence sources confirmed a cyber-intrusion into one of the most sensitive databases of the nation’s physical infrastructure – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s National Inventory of Dams (NID).
This single database details all the vulnerabilities of every major dam in the country – about 8,100 dams across our nation’s waterways. Now imagine a cyber-attack on the network of a single major dam. Such an event could easily compromise the network and allow for malicious code to be planted inside – code that could later open the floodgates or lock them in place. Within minutes, the valley below could flood, with unimaginable consequences, including loss of property and life.
While the intrusion at the NID was discovered in May, intelligence reports show that the database was actually penetrated in January, five months before it was discovered. Further investigation suggests that this intrusion came from unauthorized users based in China. Of course, this raises new fears. Officials are now concerned that China may be preparing to conduct a future cyber-attack on the national electrical power grid.
Some nations may even enlist the help of criminal organizations to carry out their cyber-attacks. President Obama’s former cyber-security coordinator, Howard Schmidt, recently said there was evidence that foreign governments were even taking kickbacks from local cyber-criminals that target U.S. corporations – it is a “quid pro quo” for letting them operate.
Now a foreign state can opportunistically soften up its targets, with little use of traditional military resources, under a guise of deniability.
In May 2010, General Keith Alexander provided his views in a report for the United States House Committee on Armed Services subcommittee and he indicated the threat is too large and pervasive for the government to handle on its own. It will require the focus of private resources to secure what has become an indispensable technology – the electronic Swiss army knife we carry in our pockets and purses – the smartphone.
In face, President Obama issued Executive Order 13636 on February 12, 2013 with the solve purpose to improve cyber-security of our critical infrastructure by getting the government and the private sector working together immediately.
With the growth in mobile devices and their increasing integration with the corporate world, this ‘invisible’ battle is expanding to our pockets.
It is wise to monitor the security software market as there are truly exciting developments underway as part of fighting the shadowy battles of the future in cyber-space. I will continue to monitor developments and provide updates in future articles and at my blog.
Finally, I want to thank Ray Blanco of Technology Profits, published by Agora Financial, as he was the source of some of the materials about the technology advancements mentioned in this post.
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