With the advent of the information age, it was obvious that technology will creep into the international political system. It has and it is here to stay. States with well-developed information technology sectors are very successful. One of the creations of this technology is techniques to penetrate into another state virtually in the cyber space. Cyber warfare has revolutionized the global arena. Gone are the days when two opposing sides would battle it out on the field. Now computers are the weapons and hackers are the soldiers.
The term cyber warfare is made up of two terms “cyber” referring to computers and “warfare” referring to combat between states. Cyber warfare is defined as “An internet-based conflict that involves the politically motivated attacks on the information and information systems of a targeted state. Conventional military strategies have existed for years but cyber warfare is emerging to be the “preferred method” of combat due to a number of reasons. No physical battleground is needed, just the abstract cyber space is required. It is highly anonymous, effective and less time-consuming. It demands low expenditure on research and development.
Civilians can become a part of it and thousands of soldiers don’t need to die. An all-out war between major world powers has become less acceptable in the modern world so it makes sense that more furtive strategies are preferred.
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An actor in cyber warfare refers to those entities that have a certain role to play in this virtual space. These actors range in their size; from large countries to small scale individuals. They also vary in their ability to launch cyber-attacks against their adversaries and defend themselves against potential aggressors. The six big shots in virtual warfare, the primary focus of this article, are the US, North Korea, China, Russia, Israel and Iran.
The US is a power to be reckoned with in the cyber sector. It has been developing its cyber capacities for a long time and that has definitely paid off. In 2007, Pentagon claimed that its email servers particularly those of the Joint Chiefs had been compromised and it was a loss of $100 million. 2009 saw the establishment of the US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) headed by the Director of the National Security Agency (NSA). This organization protects the networks of the Department of Defense and the civilian networks are protected by the Department of Homeland Security. How US focused on cyber warfare is evident from the fact that in 2010 the capabilities of the Army, the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines were brought under one roof by the USCYBERCOM.
Billions of dollars have been invested by the US government in this sector. Several intelligence officials have reported that cyber warfare is larger threat to the US than even al-Qaeda. The cyber staff of the US saw a massive expansion from 1800 personnel in 2014 to 6000 in 2016. This state has launched cyber-attacks against several countries. The malicious worm Stuxnet was aimed at harming Iran’s nuclear program. It was identified in 2010. Operation Olympic Games started in 2006 during Bush’s tenure and was one of the world’s first known offensive use of cyber weapons. It was also directed at damaging Iran’s nuclear program. Israel was in on both of these operations allegedly. The US has also placed digital “implants” in the Reconnaissance General Bureau. Edward Snowden revealed that the US has tapped China’s networks and has also spied on Tsinghua University, one China’s biggest research institutions.
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China has followed a similar path like the US to build up its cyber arsenal. The public face of China’s cyber warfare is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which has several units dedicated for this purpose although their exact structure and composition is not known. The PLA enlists programmers right out of college. Foreign Policy magazine places China’s “hacker” army between 50,000 and 100,000 individuals. China’s cyber-attacks are generally carried out to achieve technological and economic advantages over its adversaries. Jason Fritz wrote an article in 2008 and he alleges that between 1995 and 2008, the Chinese government was involved in high profile cases of espionage through the use of “a decentralized network of students, business people, scientist, diplomats and engineers from within the Chinese diaspora”.
China has been linked to the beginning of a “new cyber cold war”. Operation Titan Rain began in 2003 and attacked Lockheed Martin, Sandia National Laboratories, Redstone Arsenal, and NASA to obtain sensitive information from here. In Operation Aurora, Google was attacked and by virtue of Operation Shady RAT (Remote Access Tool) almost 70 organizations have been hacked such as the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee. The PLA is not only capable of advance surveillance and espionage but also has malware that can take down foreign electricity and water grids. The Chinese government, however, denies involvement in cyber-spying campaigns maintaining the stance that it is a victim not the culprit.
Russia is even more advanced in this arena than China. It has special military units dedicated to cyber espionage. And unlike China, it is aggressive in using cyber tactics. In 1982, a part of the Soviet Union’s Trans Siberia Pipeline was obliterated because of a malware placed by the CIA Since then it has been developing its capabilities in the cyber space. In 1999, Moonlight Maze Virus was implanted in the ICT based infrastructure of the US to obtain confidential information about the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and NASA. Estonia tried to remove a pro-Soviet statue in 2007 and was struck with a massive Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack by Russia.
The same kind of attack was launched in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ossetia in 2008 during the Russian-Georgian Conflict. During conflict with Ukraine in 2014, Russia first disabled mobile phone communications before launching its military there. The latest example of Russia’s cyber-attacks is her alleged interference in the 2016 US Presidential Elections in which Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning were deliberately damaged by leaking some of her controversial emails. Thus, Russia may seem quiet on the cyber front but really it is more active than it appears.
Israel, a small Jewish state in the Middle East, is a cyber-powerhouse and has approximately 10% of the global sale of computer and network security technology. As with many other aspects of warfare, Israel is and has been for some time, very proactive in the area of cyber warfare. Israel reportedly has had at least some cyber warfare capability since the early 1990s, and these capabilities have matured and evolved over time. In 2002, a special unit of the Israel Security Agency (ISA) was charged with matters of defense against cyber-attacks.
At present the task of cyber warfare operations appears to be somewhat of a contested split between the C4I (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence) Directorate of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and Unit 8200 (signals intelligence) 20 of the Directorate of Military Intelligence which is commonly known as Aman. Many teenagers have also been recruited for launching cyber-attacks. Lior Div claims that Israel has 490 cyber security companies. As already mentioned, Israel was a part of the Stuxnet program and Operation Olympic Games along with the US. Additionally, Israel also launched an attack on an alleged nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007 (Operation Orchard). Thus, Israel is definitely a formidable cyber superpower.
An emerging power, North Korea has a very strong cyber defense. The reason behind this is that it is isolated and its citizens do not have access to the World Wide Web but to a government—run intranet. They also have relatively limited reliance on technology which further gives them an edge. Despite being isolated, North Korea has produced some of the world’s best hackers who are not only capable of achieving disruptive but also potentially destructive attacks all over the world. A faction of the Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA) has a faction dedicated to cyber warfare. Mirim College and Moranbong University are two institutions that are responsible solely for producing experts in espionage and other cyber-attacks.
There are almost 6000 hackers at North Korea’s disposal. South Korea claims that their northern neighbor has turned 60,000 computers in their side of the peninsula into “zombies” (computers affected by hackers) and has also stolen war plans. In 2014, SONY Pictures was attacked by a hacker group “Guardians of Peace” and confidential information was leaked. North Korea has been blamed that it carried out this attack in retaliation to a comedy movie showing a plot to assassinate their leader, Kim Jong Un. However, North Korea has denied all possibility. Hence, experts have rightly noted that this state should be a part of the cyber superpowers.
Iran has launched cyber-attacks as part of her “soft war” strategy and it has been allegedly behind several attacks carried out in the region. Cyber Defense Command has been operating in Iran since 2010. The Institute of National Security Studies said in 2014 that Iran is “one of the most active players in the international cyber arena”. Iran has been a victim and a predator in the cyber space. Cyber conflict between Iran and the US has been called history’s first know cyber war by Michael Joseph Gross. Iran’s nuclear program was damaged by the Stuxnet and Operation Olympic Games.
A group of hackers in Iran called Rocket Kitten has been said to be linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and has been associated with numerous attacks. In 2012, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia, Saudi Aramco was attacked by Iranian hackers using the Shamoon virus and it brought the company close to collapse. In August 2014, an official of the Israel Defense Force claimed that Iran has launched many strikes on Israeli infrastructure. In March 2015, there was a power outrage in Turkey holding 40 million people and it is possible that the Iranian Cyber Army was behind this. Operation Cleaver and Operation Newscaster are some more examples which depict the emergence of Iran as a state capable of entering in a full blown cyber war.
Conclusively, it is imperative to say with the field of cyber warfare gaining impetus day after day, Pakistan needs to fortify its virtual defences and get ready to improve offences in the arena of information technology because as Nicholas Negroponte said, “This is just the beginning, the beginning of understanding that cyber space has no limits, no boundaries.”
Nabiya Imran is a student of National Defense University, Islamabad.