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War and Military

How Weaker Nations Are Taking Cyber Warfare Advantage

Alexandra Goman

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Cyber offensive technology (a malware that is employed for military use) gives clear asymmetric advantage which favours weaker states and non-state actors. They may pursue cyber technology in order to gain strength in pursuit of broader goal. This asymmetry is not something new and presents to be an effective tool to level the imbalance of power.

The entry for weaker actors is easier, cheaper, and it does not require much efforts. Presumably, one may need some computers and technical assistance. Offensive capability can also be procured through online criminal market, so that even high-skilled IT personnel may not be required.  Furthermore, attribution problem is not yet solved, so it gives an advantage in staying anonymous, therefore, escaping failure costs.

Asymmetric tactics is pursued by actors that do not have constraints on their own concept of morality and war-fighting. Terrorists or insurgents might not have the same reservations about killing civilians or bringing high level of destruction in the event of a cyberattack than state countries. Similarly, those desperate enough but with a strong will to fight, may employ cyber method regardless of high costs.

Terrorists, for example, target innocents indiscriminately. Their goal is to inflict the threat of terror and violence in order to achieve a strategic goal.  This consequently poses great challenges for deterrence. As weak actors are becoming stronger, others become more vulnerable.

Soldiers wrapped up day two of an integrated cyber exercise between 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry, 14th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 201st Expeditionary Military Intelligence Brigade, from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., supported by cyber augmentees from the 780th Military Intelligence Brigade from Fort Meade, Md., Oct. 21. Cyber information collected during the exercise enabled the Soldiers to isolate and capture a simulated high-value target in a mock village. The training integrates infantry ground units with cyber, signal and human intelligence collection capabilities, which gives units on the modern battlefield a broader capacity to search out and isolate their enemies in real time. (Photo by Capt. Meredith Mathis)

Nevertheless, gaining cyber capability is not that easy as it may seem. The case of Stuxnet (a malware that attacked a nuclear facility in Iran) does not seem to prove asymmetric advantage, because the attack was apparently conducted by stronger parties with substantial funding and resources. Detailed intelligence on the target, access to the computer network of an opponent, finding vulnerabilities and then employment of cyber capability (all present in Stuxnet case) further complicate an argument about asymmetry. Moreover, the development of Stuxnet code required some high-skilled expertise that may be difficult and inaccessible by non-state actors or weak states.

Additionally, it would take time and financial support to plan, manage, and monitor the development of the code. Therefore, it would require more personnel than just IT specialists. Moreover, considering the target of Stuxnet, nuclear expertise would be required as well. Similarly, knowledgeable experts in other areas would also come in handy: there should be people skilled in how these infrastructures work to cause actual damage.  So in case of a lone hacker with radical views, the use of cyber appears to be doubtful, as there are cheaper and easier ways to inflict damage.

At the same time, there are risks of failure and they are too faced by weak actors. If such mission was compromised, and/or a code behaved differently than expected and/or backfired, it would only increase the costs without ringing actual benefits. In this sense, stronger states are more prepared to minimize them than weaker ones.

If a cyberattack fails to reach the end result, weaker actors may have spent substantial amount of money in vain and have not reached the desirable effect. This, in turn, reduces the probability of using cyber in the first place. Weak states may want to invest in other ventures, rather than cyber, to be sure that they can reach the desirable end result. So the true costs of such attack have a high level uncertainty for weak actors as well, however they may not be prepared to bear the failure costs and may not have enough resources to mitigate them.

Another advantage of cyber technology is that the nature of cyberspace and cyberattacks favour an attacker. Offense is becoming easier than defense and guarantees anonymity. The Internet was designed to make connections easy and reliable, plus security was not in the original thinking of creators. Thus, an attacker has an upper hand to reach its target, while staying anonymous and inflicting damage through cyber means.

Today cyber defense is not perfected and has vulnerabilities that can be exploited. Although it has been greatly improved for the last decade, vulnerabilities still remain, especially in the sector of industrial facilities that proved to be slow in adjusting to current cyber threats. For instance there is increased complexity of integrated information systems, hardware devices and component software produced which only increase cyber risks. Moreover, security considerations are left aside because of the demand to design measures in accordance to CIA requirements and other specifications.

Meanwhile, the percentage of industrial computers targeted by cyber perpetrators has grown for more than 7% between July and December 2016 (Kaspersky Lab ICS CERT, 2016). In the first half of 2017, Kaspersky Lab blocked 37.6% attempts on ICS computers. Fortunately, no dedicated malware that affected industrial processes were found (Kaspersky Lab ICS CERT, 2017). Moreover, the Internet remains the main source of infection for computers that are part of industrial infrastructure.

As for anonymity factor, attribution remains a technical problem up to date. In case of Stuxnet, it is believed that it was initiated by the Unites States of America and Israel which both were interested in impairing Iran’s nuclear program. According to Sanger, one of the journalists who intensively covered the topic of Stuxnet as a US cyber weapon[1], Stuxnet has been a part of a highly covert US operation, code-named “Olympic Games”, which had already begun under the Bush administration. In any case, attribution is still lacking and Stuxnet was not attributed, so it is hard to speculate about the particular parties involved.

Asymmetric threat does not seem to be supported by Stuxnet case as there were substantial resources and financial capabilities involved to plan this operation. However, the possibility of employing cyberattacks in the future by non-state actors and weaker states cannot be ruled out as one case study is not sufficient enough to generalize. In case of cyberattacks by non-states, the damage may be limited, but cyber could be still used to compliment other weapons.  In any case, this asymmetric threat does impede final deterrence on the world stage and should be taken in consideration in future security affairs.

After all, Stuxnet – the first use of offensive computer program – might have been an imperfect test-run of cyber means and more advanced are yet to come. One always fails before achieving success; this is what happened to pretty much any other weapon in history. More dangerous attacks may be mounted in the future, but for now these are all speculations.

[1] Sanger, D. (2012). Obama Ordered Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran. The Ney York Times, [online] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/01/world/middleeast/obama-ordered-wave-of-cyberattacks-against-iran.html [Accessed on 17.02.2018].

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Specialist in global security and nuclear disarmament. Excited about international relations, curious about cognitive, psycho- & neuro-linguistics. A complete traveller.

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War and Military

Food for Thought: A Cyber Pearl Harbour

Alexandra Goman

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cyber pearl harbor

To begin with, the notion that a state can be vulnerable to a strategic surprise attack is one of the main discourses in cyber debate. A former US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta warned¹ of the Cyber Pearl Harbour in 2012, highlighting the dangers of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. However, this term has appeared in the beginning of the 90s.

The Pearl Harbour analogy appeared to characterize a “bolt-from-the-blue” surprise attack and originated in America. Strategic surprise attacks can temporarily suspend an enemy, thus giving an advantage to the attacker to achieve its goal. It can also be employed by weaker actors to gain a strategic advantage.

Cyberattacks can be launched against critical infrastructures in order to stun and freeze the opponent. It can render an enemy unable to execute their normal operations, leaving them outnumbered and vulnerable to future offence. At the same time, a state can recover from this (depending on the capabilities), overcome the compromised systems and retaliate even with stronger force, preventing an attacker to reach the desirable result. Still, there are certain strategic and operational advantages.

The specifics of cyber Pearl Harbour cannot be known in advance, as something like this has not yet happened, however there are a lot of speculations in regards to the disastrous consequences. Such an attack, coupled with conventional military support, can give obvious benefits to the attacker.

At the same time, more powerful states (like United States of America, England, Japan) would be more vulnerable to such attacks, as they are heavily interconnected and reliant on the network connections. Nonetheless, they should be resilient and ready to mitigate the costs of the attack, yet it is not clear how much time they might need to recover from a massive incident that affects critical infrastructure.

As president Obama once said²,“It doesn’t take much to imagine the consequences of a successful cyberattack. In a future conflict, an adversary unable to match our military supremacy on the battlefield might seek to exploit our computer vulnerabilities here at home. Taking down vital banking systems could trigger a financial crisis. The lack of clean water or functioning hospitals could spark a public health emergency. And as we’ve seen in past blackouts, the loss of electricity can bring businesses, cities and entire regions to a standstill.”

That being said, today cyber defense is still not perfect and this Cyber Pearl Harbour scenario cannot be ruled out. Increased complexity of integrated information systems, hardware devices and component software comes with increased cyber risks. Although cyber defense has been greatly improved for the last decade, vulnerabilities still remain, especially in the sector of industrial facilities that proved to be slow in adjusting to current cyber threats.

BBC News. (2012). Leon Panetta warns of ‘cyber Pearl Harbour’. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/av/technology-19923046/leon-panetta-warns-of-cyber-pearl-harbour [Accessed on 20.02.2018].

President Obama, B. (2012). Taking the Cyberattack Threat Seriously. The White House, [online] Available at: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2012/07/23/taking-cyberattack-threat-seriously [Accessed on 20.02.2018].

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Wars: From Weapons to Cyberattacks

Alexandra Goman

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Historically war focused on public contests which involve arms, e.g. Gentili’s concept of war. The main goal of such contests is to inflict damage to soldiers of an opposing side. Through this lens, cyberwar may be seen as a contest which perhaps involves certain arms. But it should be noted that these contests are very seldom public, mostly due to attribution problem. Even more, cyberattacks do not kill or wound soldiers; instead they aim to disrupt a property. It is, however, somewhat debatable, because such disruption of a system (like meddling with the nuclear facilities of Iran) may have an effect on both, civilians and combatants in a longer run. However, these secondary consequences are not the primary goal of a cyberattack, thus, there should be a difference between a cyberwar and a war.

The element of war being public is very important, as war is always openly declared. Additionally, an opposing side is given a chance to respond to the enemy by whatever means it deems necessary. In the context of cyberwar, this is more complicated. In case of cyberattacks, it is very difficult to determine the source and the initial attacker (more precisely, an attribution problem which is to be addressed further). Moreover, many attackers prefer to remain silent. This argument is further exacerbated by the lack of evidence. At this date the best example of cyber warfare, going somewhat public, is Stuxnet – not attributed to and officially admitted.

In the end, the attack became public but it was hidden for a year before its discovery. The specialists did notice the Iranian centrifuges malfunctioning[1] but they failed to identify the source of problems. This cyberattack was new because it did not hijack a computer or extort money; it was specifically designed to sabotage an industrial facility, uranium enrichment plant in Natanz.

However, attribution still falls behind. U.S and Israel are believed to launch Stuxnet, however they denied their involvement. Moreover, not any other country as officially admitted that. Based on the previous argument, for war to happen it has to be public. The case of Stuxnet or its similar computer programs does not therefore prove the case of cyberwar.

Moreover, if war is seen as a repeated series of contests and battles, pursued for a common cause and reason (for example, to change the behavior of the adversary), then there should be more attacks than just one. Nothing seems to preclude that one state may attempt launching a series of cyberattacks against an enemy in the future, which consequently be named a war. However, the adversary should be able to respond to the attacks.

Another view argues that the just war tradition[2] can accommodate cyberwar; however there are also some questions to take into consideration. In cyberwar, a cyber tool is just means which is used by military or the government to achieve a certain goal. This fits the just war tradition very well, because the just war tradition does not say much about means used in war. It is more focused on effects and intentions (See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online).

The example of cyberweapons and the debate around them prove that they are discussed in the same way as any other evolving technology. If agents, effects, and intentions are identified, cyberwar should supposedly apply to the just war tradition similarly to any other types of war. However, cyber means has unique characteristics: ubiquity, uncontrollability of cyberspace and its growing importance in everyday life. These characteristics make cyberwar more dangerous, and therefore it increases the threat in relation to cyberwar.

Another useful concept of war to which cyber is being applied is the concept of war by the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz. It presents the trinity of war: violence, instrumental role, and political nature (Clausewitz, 1832). Any offensive action which is considered as an act of war has to meet all three elements.

Firstly, any war is violent where the use of force compels the opponent to do the will of the attacker (Ibid., 1). It is lethal and has casualties. Secondly, an act of war has a goal which may be achieved in the end of the war (or failed to achieve in case the attacker is defeated). The end of war, in this sense, happens when the opponent surrenders or cannot sustain any more damage. The third element represents political character. As Clausewitz puts it, “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means” (Ibid., p. 29). A state has a will that it wants to enforce on another (or other) states through the use of force.  When applying this model to cyber, there are some complications.

Cyber activities may be effective without violence and do not need to be instrumental to work. According to Rid, even if they have any political motivation, they are likely to be interested in avoiding attribution for some period of time. That is why, he highlights, cybercrime has been thriving and was more successful that acts of war (Rid, 2012, p.16).  However, in all three aspects, the use of force is essential.

In the case of war, the damage is inflicted through the use of force. It may be a bomb, dropped on the city; or a drone-strike that destroys its target. In any case, the use of force is followed by casualties: buildings destroyed, or people killed. However, in cyberspace the situation is different. The actual use of force in cyberspace is a more complicated notion.

[1] International Atomic Energy Agency (2010). IAEA statement on Iranian Enrichment Announcement. [online] Available at: https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/iaea-statement-iranian-enrichment-announcement [Accessed on 28.12.2017].

[2] Jus bellum iustum (Lat.) – sometimes referred both as “just war tradition” and “just war theory”. Just war theory explains justifications for how and why wars are fought. The historical approach is concerned with historical rules or agreements applied to different wars (e.g. Hague convention). The theory deals with the military ethics and describes the forms that a war may take.  Ethics is divided into two groups: jus ad bellum (the right to go to war) and jus in bello (right conduct of war). (See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online). In the text Cook applies cyberwar to the just war tradition, rather than theory. In his belief, “tradition” describes something which evolves as the product of culture (In Ohlin, Govern and Finkelstein, 2015, p. 16).

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Stuxnet: a New Era in Global Security

Alexandra Goman

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Stuxnet was a malware which affected an Iranian nuclear facility (along with couple of other industrial sites across the world). It was found in 2010 but it took quite a while to actually discover it. What is particular about it is the fact that it crossed the line between cyber and physical domain, showing that it was possible to use a code to damage a critical infrastructure.  Before it, a general debate in national / global security on how a critical infrastructure can be targeted and damaged through the information system has only been theoretical.  After Stuxnet it was evident that cyberspace could be exploited and used to launch cyberattacks in order to cause physical damage. So what actually happened?

On June 17, 2010 Sergey Ulazin from a small security company in Belarus received a help-request for technical support from a customer in Iran. Arbitrary BSODs (a stop error after a system crash) and computer reboots were reported. After careful examination and a regular check for system malfunction, it was discovered that a malware infection was probably involved (The Man Who Found Stuxnet – Sergey Ulasen in the Spotlight). Having a stealthy nature and strange payload, it was later named Stuxnet, according to the file-name found in the code. A computer worm infected at least 14 industrial sites in Iran along with the uranium-enrichment plant in Natanz.

It carried genuine digital certificates (they guarantee that you can trust a file) from recognized companies, and it was well-developed and direct. The malware was able to determine the target it was looking for. In case, it was not, it did nothing and moved on to another system. This “fingerprinting of the control systems” proved that it was not just an average malicious program, but a targeted malware that meant to destroy.

Although Stuxnet relied on a physical person to install it (via USB flash drive), the worm spreads on its own between computers with Windows operating system. It affects other machines, regardless of the connection to the Internet though a local computer network. It could also infect other USB flash drives and jump into other computers through it. Moreover, it proliferates very quickly.

Once the worm infects a system, it waits, checking if necessary parameters are met. As soon as they are, it activates a sequence that causes industrial process to self-destruct. Symantec, a software company that provides cyber security software and services, conducted a thorough analysis of Stuxnet and found that Iran, Indonesia and India were the most affected countries in the early days of infection. The nuclear facility at Natanz was one of the most affected.

Furthermore, the principle is that this malware identifies a target, then records the data and finally decides what normal operations are. After this, it plays pre-recorded data on the computers of the personnel so that they think that the centrifuges are running normally, when in fact they are not. In the end, it erases itself from the system so that it cannot be traced and/or found.

The International Atomic Energy Agency inspected the Natanz facility and confirmed (International Atomic Energy Agency (2010)) that the centrifuges were malfunctioning and producing less than 20% of enriched uranium. However, at that time, the reason for that was unknown. The most detailed damage assessment came later from the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. It claimed that Stuxnet destroyed 984 centrifuges. However, Iran has not provided such a number, and the IAEA failed to give precise information on the damage.

Stuxnet crossed this line where a code infects software or digital programs, what it actually did, it affected the physical equipment. This has brought a new technological revolution. Before, viruses were used by cyber pranksters and minor rowdies to cause a system to crash on computers of innocent victims. But state-to-state attacks and a cyberwar were not discussed and were not thought of, as it was something out of science fiction scenarios. Stuxnet has changed this perception, and opened a new era in global security.

A former chief of industrial control systems cyber security research said that Stuxnet was “the first view of something … that doesn’t need outside guidance by a human – but can still take control of your infrastructure. This is the first direct example of weaponized software, highly customized and designed to find a particular target.” It is not hard to imagine that similar malicious programs can be developed in the future and used to achieve a military and/or political goal.

Many believe that the cyberattacks on Iran nuclear facility were meant to slow down Iran nuclear program. However, enrichment recovered within a year, and did not permanently damage nuclear program. Some experts also say that it had no effect on nuclear program whatsoever and the whole situation around Stuxnet was over-hyped by the media. Others are also saying that evidence on the malware has been inconclusive and Stuxnet may have, in fact, helped in speeding up Iranian nuclear program. The media reaction towards cyberattacks may have been exaggerated because of the secrecy around cyber issues but in end Stuxnet has made a good story.

As to the parties involved, the attack was not tied to a specific name and/or a country. Yet, it widely believed to be launched by U.S. and Israel. The sophistication of the program required considerable amount of resources, including extensive financial support and skilled specialists. This is why many security companies and experts agree on attributing the complex malware to one or more states. Among them is Kaspersky Lab, a multinational cyber security company, who says that the attack was launched with a specific motivation in mind. The attackers wanted to access industrial control systems which monitor and control infrastructure and processes of the facility. (Similar systems are used in power plants, communication systems, airports, and even military sites). Moreover, such an attack required significant amount of intelligence data so Kaspersky Lab is convinced that it was likely supported by a nation state.

Although the identity of the attacker is still unknown, many experts in international politics believe that the attack was clearly politically-motivated and aimed to slow down the development of Iran’s nuclear program. The United States and Israel both deny their involvement in Stuxnet, however, some leaked information (WikiLeaks, CBC interview with a former CIA director Michael Hayden etc.) suggests that the claims might have some credibility. Regardless the claims made, it is important to highlight that no country officially declared that it launched an offensive cyberattack.

All in all, Stuxnet has revolutionized the way we look at malicious digital programs and boosted a debate about cyber tools used for political purpose. After all, we are living in a highly digitalized world where we are dependent on technology. Military is no exception. Digital technologies are widely being incorporated into military planning and operations. Modern nuclear and conventional weapons systems rely and depend on information systems for launching, targeting, command and control, including technologies that govern safety and security. It is clear that future military conflicts will all include a digital aspect and cyber technologies. Stuxnet was just an early version of software that could potentially destroy an industrial site, specifically a nuclear facility. If malware actually achieved its goals, consequences would have been disastrous and could cause an international crisis.

 After all, as experts once have said, “Major concern is no longer weapons of mass destruction, but weapons of mass disruption” (Cetron and Davies, 2009).

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