In May 2010 the US military appointed its first four-star general to direct its defensive and offensive capabilities in cyber warfare. China, Russia, and other major countries also have increased their skills in this new kind of warfare. All major banks and other companies, such as Google, continue to upgrade their protection against breaches of their information and computer network systems. The increasing dependence of both modern economies and modern weaponry on computer-based networks and online storage of information explains the rapid expansion of programs to repel cyber attacks, and to provide armies with significant offensive cyber capabilities.
Of course, modern warfare still relies on large numbers of combat military personnel. But the architecture of the military has become increasingly computer-based, with online communications, information storage, and other essential components that use cyberspace, or can be disrupted through attacks from cyberspace. Countries at war would gain an enormous military advantage if they could shut down the computer-networks of their adversaries for even a few hours.
Larger companies in developing as well as developed countries rely increasingly on the Internet and computer networks. Valuable information can be stolen, privacy of customers compromised, and internal and external communication made much more difficult when these systems get breached.
Warfare and espionage against government and private targets are not just hypothetical possibilities. After gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia became a technologically sophisticated nation where the great majority of Estonians had access to the Internet, and much business was conducted online. Estonia suffered one of the first cyber attacks on a whole nation for a couple of weeks in 2007. Computer robot networks seized control over huge numbers of computers from many other countries, and used them to attack different targets in Estonia. These attacks crippled activities by the Estonian government, banks, and other businesses. Suspicion focused on the Russian government as the source of these attacks, but this could not be conclusively proved.
Georgia suffered severe cyber attacks slightly before the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. The attacks hit government websites, the media, banks, and other businesses. Georgia was more backward than Estonia, so these attacks on Georgia did not cause as much devastation as the earlier ones on Estonia, but they still inflicted considerable harm for a while. The timing and other evidence suggested again that Russia was behind these attacks, but no conclusive evidence could substantiate this belief.
Almost every day another company admits that its computer and online security systems has been breached. Often the attackers turn out to be hackers who just enjoy showing they can defeat even top of the line security firewalls. The culprits are sometimes criminals who seek information, such as credit card names and passwords, which they can use for financial gain. The hackers may also be governments that spy on companies in the hope of acquiring valuable proprietary information.
This week the American cybersecurity company McAfee issued a report that claims to identify a single government perpetrator (alleged to be China) of large numbers of cyberattacks on other governments, companies, and even the United Nations. So far their claims have not been confirmed.
Combating cyberwarfare and cyberspying faces several unique challenges. Since cyberspace is not owned by any nation, and is easily accessed by billions of individuals and companies, it is often very difficult to get clear evidence about who is responsible for cyberattacks, such as the attack last year on Google’s source code, or the earlier attack on Estonia. Are they from governments that are probing for state and business secrets, or from private hackers seeking publicity, or valuable information that they can use for financial gain? If the source of the attack cannot be identified with much confidence, it is hard to establish a credible system of deterrence.
A second major challenge is the intrinsic vulnerability of many Internet and computer network systems. It has long been recognized that foolproof security systems do not exist, whether they be vaults, safes, identifications for checking accounts, or other traditional forms of protecting valuable assets. Any security system that protects information will generate efforts to access that information, including sometimes efforts by individuals who helped design these systems.
Since security systems that protect information in cyberspace are even more vulnerable, continuing battles take place against public and private hackers who probe for weaknesses in these systems. No company or government can ever hope to have a cyber-based system that cannot be breached, but they can make breaching more difficult.
The development of clearer international law about hacking would help deter attacks in cyberspace by private individuals and groups. Cyberattacks on military targets might be also brought before international tribunals, but countries have to prepare their own responses. These responses include cyber and other retaliations against cyberattacks during both wartime and peacetime on vital military network and information systems.