Cyber warfare refers to politically-motivated attacks to conduct espionage and hacking. A form of information warfare, cyber warfare is now considered to be a critical pillar of military operations along with land, sea, air and space.
Nation states that are formally or otherwise in a state of war with each other are often thought to be behind efforts to penetrate each other’s networks and cyber space to cause damage and disruption.
National cyber warfare strategy
Keeping in view the strategic and military importance of cyber security, many countries across the globe including Pakistan are working to make their digital front more secure.
In May 2010, Pentagon set up its new US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), headed by General Keith B. Alexander, director of the National Security Agency (NSA). The aim was to defend American military networks and to strike back in case of a national threat.
Similarly, the European Union has set up ENISA (European Network and Information Security Agency) who are now aiming to significantly expand ENISA’s capabilities in order to safeguard its socio-economic interests in the region.United Kingdom has also set up an operations centre for cyber-security, based in the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
Similarly Pakistan, which has been the victim of cyber attacks by neighbouring India, has been working on an effective cyber security system as well. The program reportedly called “Cyber Secure Pakistan” was launched in April 2013 by the Pakistan Information Security Association, and aims not only to secure military and government spaces but has been expanded to the country’s universities, which are often targeted by Indian hackers.
Cyber warfare methodologies
Unlike other politically-motivated attacks amongst nation states, cyber warfare has greater strategic value to it. These attacks often target civil, military and private institutions, including telecommunication, transport, finance and the energy sector.
Different methodologies are adopted to carry out these attacks. DDoS (Dedicated Denial of Service) attacks are carried out to make a machine or service unavailable for intended users. Although, denial of service attacks are often deemed computer generated, they can target high profile servers like government sites, banks, credit card payment gateways etcetera.
Cutting off electronic installments such as undersea communication cables also comes under the category of cyber attacks.
With the growing dependence on digital infrastructure, network breaches and cyber espionage are the shiny new tools of cyber warfare. Attackers hack into targeted systems by various means and often sabotage and modify industrial infrastructure.
Such methods not only disrupt the digital infrastructure, but also temper with the existing functionalities of the systems and networks. Stuxnet, along with its many variants, is a fine example of espionage and national security sabotage.
Stuxnet, the game changer
In 2010, Iranian nuclear facilities were infected by a unique computer virus, which pushed back the Iranian nuclear program by about three years. Stuxnet, reportedly the first malware with an ability to mask itself over a network, spies on and critically destabilises industrial systems, and is probably the first malware to include a programmable logic controller (PLC) rootkit (such software has a malicious nature, and is designed to hide certain processes from normal detection methods).
Israel and the United States were reportedly behind the cyber attack targeting the Iranian nuclear infrastructure.
Stuxnet computer malware is undeniably a work of genius, and once you learn about its functionality, you can start picturing the atmosphere of the next generation’s cyber warfare capabilities. The malware spread indiscriminately into the Iranian nuclear facilities network, but included a specialised malware payload that was designed to target specifically Siemens supervisory control and data acquisition systems (aka SCADA). These industrial systems monitor and control high-valued industrial processes.
Spread initially via USB, the malware took over the network by working silently in the background without being detected by normal processes. Stuxnet in this case was programmed to target SCADA configurations that met specific criteria; once the criterion was met it changed the rotational frequency of the attached motors, hence disrupting industrial equipment and causing heavy losses. Although there was no official statement from any side, in May 2011, Gary Samore, White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, in his television interview exclaimed,
“We’re glad they [the Iranians] are having trouble with their centrifuge machine and that we – the US and its allies – are doing everything we can to make sure that we complicate matters for them.”
Similarly, according to The Daily Telegraph, at the retirement party for the chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), Gabi Ashkenazi, references to Stuxnet were made, as one of the operational successes of the retiring IDF chief of staff.
Stuxnet, along with its various variants, does exist in the black market and will remain a threat to all countries that are running critical industrial facilities of a similar nature.
Pakistan vs. India
Pakistan and India are often in conflict with each other over the disputed territory of Kashmir, among many other issues. Cyber attacks are the latest way to dismantle each country’s infrastructure and operations. There are two such notable cases, where India and Pakistan meddled in serious cyberspace conflicts, initiated back in the late 90’s. Initially the cyber attacks started to show their face in 1999, at a time when India and Pakistan were engaged in the Kargil conflict.
Historical facts indicate that hackers from both countries have been repeatedly involved in attacking private and government websites. The number of attacks has considerably grown with the passage of time. In 2010, at least 36 Pakistani government database websites were hacked by a group who go by the name of “Indian Cyber Army”.
The official website of the Election Commission of Pakistan was attacked in 2013 by the same group in an attempt to retrieve sensitive database information. In response, Pakistani hackers, also known as “True Cyber Army”, hacked and defaced around 1,059 websites of Indian election bodies.
In a similar incident in December 2010, a group of Pakistani hackers attacked and took down the website of India’s top investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). This was also in response to the attack by Indian hackers who attacked websites belonging to the Pakistani Army and government websites including Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, Pakistan Computer Bureau, Council of Islamic Ideology etcetera.
Cyber war in the Middle East
Similar to the situation on ground, the actors of the Palestinian crisis are often found clashing in the virtual world. In late 2000, Israeli hackers launched a DDoS attack on the websites of both Hezbollah and Hamas. In retaliation, Palestinian hackers chocked down the access to several Israeli websites. Interestingly, in 2007 Israel carried out an airstrike on Syria. The fighter planes managed to enter the Syrian airspace undetected. This security breach is considered as a cyber attack targeting Syrian radar and air defence network.
China vs. USA
Along with the conventional enemies that engage each other on various fronts, China is considered to be a strategic enemy by many nations including the United States. Both countries view each other as a cyber threat and equip their hackers with the latest tools to deal with a possible cyber attack. This virtual cold war is evident from the fact that top American websites are unwelcome in China, including Facebook and Google. China even has its own version of Twitter.
The Internet, along with other technological advancements has proven to be a great medium of learning and global unity, where netizens, irrespective of their nationality, work hand in hand for the progress of technology, art, medicine and economy. It’s about time that stakeholders of the Internet develop a consensus to keep the internet free and secure from politically-motivated attacks by any state or individual actors.