The Greatest Threat: How Cyber-Warfare is Changing the Nature of Conflict
Updated: May 11, 2022
On a cold December day in 2015 Ukraine over 200,000 people work away without any inclination of the imminent invasion. Yet this invasion is not one of troops, tanks, jets, or bombs. This is one of the Cyberspace, A hacker team that has fallen under the name of ‘sandworm’ and tied directly to the Russian government is about to launch one of its most devastating attacks, and one of the first of its type in the modern history of war to be used on civilians. They used “the BlackEnergy malware package to hijack the control systems of multiple regional power stations in Ukraine, cutting off electricity to about 225,000 people for many hours.” ( Kshetri, Nir and Voas, J. 2017).
This showed that nothing but an internet connection, experienced team, and a few computers could shut down power grids of major countries, this greatly harmed thousands of companies from banking to railways or even hospitals, paired with a physical invasion and the consequences would be devastating. This is only proven further by the most recent invasion of Russia into Ukraine, before entering the country supply chains were crippled, power stations locked up and mass surveillance completed. Cyberspace is now the new battlefield. Some of the greatest threats to national security to not only the United States but any country in this modern world is found in the digital warzone. How nations are handling this and even many of the NGO’s between them are as varied and turbulent as any warfare
Two decades ago, most scholars and even governments were simply posing the question of what cyber warfare is, be that the ‘hacking’ and control of a cyberspace and its connected technology or the leaking of information and stealing of data. Regardless of its broad definitions one fact remains, cyber-attacks have become the weapon of choice for nations across the globe when dealing with modern war.
Now because of this the question of legality has stepped in, “Article 2(4) UN Charter. In order to constitute an unlawful use of force it is widely accepted that an intervention must produce physical damage. Of course, a cyber-attack can cause physical damage and therefore violate Article 2(4). Upon the available evidence, I submit that the deployment of the Stuxnet virus against Iran in 2010 is such an example” (Buchan, Russell 2012). Buchan goes on to note that cyber-attacks are coercive in nature and amount to unlawful intervention. Of course, this is argued against by whom ever committed the attack, the US condoned its many information seeking operations in the middle east through the legality of stopping terrorism. Russia simply denies being connected to what ever ‘hacker group’ was tied to an attack and other nations similarly hide in the shadows when it comes to taking responsibility. This creates a legal nightmare of an environment making it hard to prosecute or charge any nation with a crime. Because of this and the precedents set by leading UN nations like the U.S. and Russia we now see a norm across the board of nations attacking nations through the cyber space leading to greater friction among the international community and its relations with little to no resistance. As Jan-Frederik Kremer notes here “A rising “Cyber Westphalian” 2 process likely to take 20 years to solidify will define the accepted characteristics of national jurisdictions in cybered terms.” (Kremer and Muller 2014). The way forward from the perspective of law and international relation will be bumpy, long, and full of strife.
The Realist way of thinking has been seen through most nations’ actions in the cyber space. Ukraine has become a testing ground for Russian malware and specialized cyber-attacks, the U.S. has been garnering and collecting information across the globe for its own security interest for well over the last 20 years.
China has been diving into the private sector and steeling as much intellectual property as it can to bolster and build its economy. This has created an entirely new way to hold power and simply a new direction for states to pursue their self-interests. “…cyberwarfare is not novel but just another arena in which states, and state interests, will collide” (Hanna Samir Kassab, 2014). As shown through the last decade, cyber warfare is being used to build up the defense of a state and weaken its enemies. Realists argue that power and the use of this power for self interest is exactly what nations strive for on the international scene. Is the cyberspace and the control of it a form of power? For Morgenthau, power “…may comprise anything that establishes and maintains the control of man…power covers all social relationships which serve that end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another” (Morgenthau 1985, p. 11). This ability to affect a populace, emotionally, physically, and even predictably is absolutely a form of power and I would argue in some ways one of the most powerful weapons of war to be placed even at the same level of risk we would nuclear weapons. This is made worse by the fact once a virus is let loose, its essentially out of the hands of whom ever released it. The idea of a rouge weaponized bacteria or disease decimating the population because it was accidently released has bounced around theorist’s head for decades.
Similarly, to the biological virus the idea that a computer virus that would reck havoc on the global market and web is entirely possible. The idea that most of our worlds computer systems are interconnected and thusly could be hindered or even completely disabled due to a rogue virus that was released and just never stopped replicating is a terrifying concept. Banks unable to move or deliver money, phone lines completely shut down, power stations unable to function. It would be akin to an apocalypse yet of the digital sense, most nations if not all of them would be unable to maintain any sense of authority or control in a situation like that especially considering how reliant we have become on technology over the last few decades.
Physical damage is one thing yet emotional and psychological damage brings cyber-attacks to an entirely other level. Russian Psyops (U.S. Military term used to describe psychological operations to effect and sway public opinion and knowledge) have been placed at the center of much of the division seen within the United States right now. They have been used in the spread of misinformation, directly disturb election process, and even disturb or shutdown transportation of oil within our country. The idea of creating civil unrest to the point of riots in what otherwise would be considered a 1st world nation with nothing more than campaigns of misinformation and directed cyber attacks sounds like a dream weapon. Yet we are seeing it used every day by nearly every nation in power, why? Because nations will act in their own self interest when left to their own devices, and right now the ability to defend from and attack in the cyber world is at the forefront of national interest. Ukraine was a hotspot for Russian cyber attacks over the last five years, and it can now be seen with the Russian invasion of 02/22/22 this was a decisive and planned weakening of infrastructure, moral and political control for the eventual take over and absorption of Ukraine back into Russian Federation control. While Ukraine may have been the first major Cyber-attack against a large civilian population it was not the first publicly known and successful attack. In 2010 an Iranian enrichment facility was attacked. Stuxnet, a cyber weapon used to halt nuclear proliferation, was a heated debate among the international community. While the Stuxnet worm was disabled fairly quickly once discovered (Farwell and Rohozinski 2011) the capacity to use the weapons of cyber war to destroy or disable a particular element of infrastructure raises the stakes significantly. Retaliation or escalation due to an attack of this nature may in fact occur. Depending on the critical infrastructure element attacked this could have far reaching consequences for the targeted actor.” (Greathouse, Craig 2014). Was a worm like this an act of war? How devastating could a computer program be? What if a third party or non-nuclear nation gained control of nuclear weapons through a cyber-attack? These questions and many more are still being asked every day and as far as the international community is concerned only remain unanswered in the way in which to prevent these eventualities.
The ability of a nation or even a non-state actor to cripple infrastructure, control policy, and even bring the prospect of nuclear war to the stage with little or no military besides a group of well-practiced “hackers” completely changes the
power dynamic of the world. While the requirement of having a massive military force is still extremely important as we can see in Ukraine currently, this does not mean you need one if your only goal is to cause as much damage as possible. Countries that may have not been on the “playing field” now can find them selves on the world stage through very simple server attacks like DDoS (A “Distributed Denial of service” attack in which you overload a specific server in order to slow down or halt the use of it in anyway) or even economically through the stealing and eventual selling of personal information on the “dark web”. Drug trafficking, Weapons, passports, social security numbers and even people can all be bought and sold on the dark web and countries like North Korea and Russia have been able to circumnavigate economic sanctions placed on them by using this cyber avenue of income. The need for advanced tech is minimal as explained here “It [DDoS attacks] didn’t require advanced technologies even though North Korean technical sophistications of DDoS attacks improved and sometimes even erased data in servers they paralyzed.” (Boo, Hyeong-wook 2017). The ability of massive attacks against a nation is no longer held by those with the largest military, it is now seen in the hands of even a single individual with a computer and an internet connection.
Now that essentially any nation can cause wide scale damage to the infrastructure and even psychology of a powerful nation, that means that any nation can now be a major actor on the world stage given enough time and a bit of technology. What this means for the future of politics and specifically the interactions of nations can be debated all day, but what is important is to understand that the world stage has changed. Now, the threat of attack can happen anywhere, anytime, and from anyone regardless of how strong your military is or how high your walls are. The ability to use Cyber attacks and even more so our ability to defend from them should be and has become one of the most important focuses of not only national security of our country but that of the worlds.
“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” – Albert Einstein.
“Cyber Attacks: Unlawful Uses of Force or Prohibited Interventions?” Journal of Conflict and Security Law, vol. 17, no. 2, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 211–27, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26296227.
“AN ASSESSMENT OF NORTH KOREAN CYBER THREATS.” The Journal of East Asian Affairs, vol. 31, no. 1, Institute for National Security Strategy, 2017, pp. 97–117, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44321274.
“The Principle of Distinction and Cyber War in International Armed Conflicts.” Journal of Conflict and Security Law, vol. 17, no. 2, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 261–77, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26296230.
Pinkston, Daniel A.
“Inter-Korean Rivalry in the Cyber Domain: The North Korean Cyber Threat in the ‘Sŏn’gun’ Era.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, vol. 17, no. 3, Georgetown University Press, 2016, pp. 60–76, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26395976.
N. Kshetri and J. Voas,
"Hacking Power Grids: A Current Problem," in Computer, vol. 50, no. 12, pp. 91-95, December 2017, doi: 10.1109/MC.2017.4451203.
J.-F. Kremer and B. Müller (eds.),
Cyberspace and International Relations, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-37481-4_4, © Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014
(2007). All politics is global: Explaining international regulatory regimes. Princeton: Princeton University Press
Andres, Richard B.
“Cyber Conflict and Geopolitics.” Great Decisions, Foreign Policy Association, 2019, pp. 69–78, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26739054.