In August, Russian troops moved into Georgia. Observers dispute who fired first, but there was a little noticed dimension of the conflict that will have major repercussions for the future.
Computer hackers attacked Georgian government Web sites in the weeks preceding the outbreak of armed conflict. The Russia-Georgia conflict represents the first significant cyber attacks accompanying armed conflict. Welcome to the 21st century.
Cyber threats and potential cyber warfare illustrate the increased vulnerabilities and loss of control in modern societies. Governments have mainly been concerned about hacker attacks on their own bureaucracy’s information technology infrastructure, but there are social vulnerabilities well beyond government computers.
In an open letter to the US president in September last year, US professionals in cyber defense warned that “the critical infrastructure of the United States, including electrical power, finance, telecommunications, health care, transportation, water, defense, and the Internet, is highly vulnerable to cyber attack. Fast and resolute mitigating action is needed to avoid national disaster.”
In the murky world of the Internet, attackers are difficult to identify.
In today’s interconnected world, an unidentified cyber attack on non-governmental infrastructure might be severely damaging. For example, some experts believe that a nation’s electric power grid may be particularly susceptible. The control systems that electric power companies use are thought vulnerable to attack, which could shut down cities and regions for days or weeks. Cyber attacks may also interfere with financial markets and cause immense economic loss by closing down commercial Web sites.
Some scenarios, including an “electronic Pearl Harbor,” sound alarmist, but they illustrate the diffusion of power from central governments to individuals. In 1941, the powerful Japanese navy used many resources to create damage thousands of miles away. Today, an individual hacker using malicious software can cause chaos in far-away places at little cost to himself.
Moreover, the information revolution enables individuals to perpetrate sabotage with unprecedented speed and scope. The so-called “love bug virus,” launched in the Phillipines in 2000, is estimated to have cost billions of dollars in damage. Terrorists, too, can exploit new vulnerabilities in cyberspace to engage in asymmetrical warfare.
In 1998, when the US complained about seven Moscow Internet addresses involved in the theft of Pentagon and NASA secrets, the Russian government replied that phone numbers from which the attacks originated were inoperative. The US had no way of knowing whether the Russian government had been involved.
More recently, last year, China’s government was accused of sponsoring thousands of hacking incidents against German federal government computers and defense and private-sector computer systems in the US. But it was difficult to prove the source of the attack, and the Pentagon had to shut down some of its computer systems.
When Estonia’s government moved a World War II statue commemorating Soviet war dead last year, hackers retaliated with a costly denial-of-service attack that closed down Estonia’s access to the Internet. There was no way to prove whether the Russian government, a spontaneous nationalist response, or both aided this transnational attack.