You’re looking at the new weapon of mass destruction right this second. Yes, it’s your computer. Sovereign hacking has become a military artform, and one that the United States appears to have been a little late in prioritizing.
The potential of this WMD is devastating. It has the capacity to block out our corporate communications, crash our stock market, disable our banking system, interrupt our domestic supply chains, including food deliveries, paralyze our nuclear defenses and shut down our government.
It can stall our warplanes in flight and take over the control of our drones, redirecting them to new destinations. Even in its most basic form, it can disrupt military and civilian communications.
And, we’re not talking about the distant future. These threats are here today.
The big wakeup call came in August of 2008. That was the month of the Russia/Georgia war. According to reports at the time, Wall Street was shocked, as presumably were our government officials, at the extent to which sophisticated hacking techniques, emanating out of Russia, succeeded in disrupting the communications of the Georgian military and government. Sites that were disabled included those of the president and the foreign ministry.
If we had been a little more perceptive, we might have attached more significance to an incident that had occured a year before that, even. In 2007, cyber-attacks out of Russia completely shut down the government computers in Estonia.
Our own government was hardly unaware of the threat, though. On April 8, 2008, the Pentagon admitted it had spent $100 million over the preceding six months to repair the damages from such attacks. One assault caused the Department of Defense to take 1,500 computers offline and ban the use of flash drives, a move that made the sharing of information more difficult in the war theaters. Air Force General Kevin P. Chilton, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, acknowledged, at that time, that the mayhem included attacks from “sophisticated nation states.”
Three months after the war in Georgia, a widespread attack on our key Defense Department sites was reported to have come from inside Russia. Without revealing details, the Pentagon said it struck hard at networks within the U.S. Central Command, the headquarters that oversees our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The attack was reported to have affected computers in the combat zones and penetrated at least one highly protected classified network.
Finally, in June of last year, Defense Secretary Gates announced the creation of a military command to oversee cyberspace both from a defensive and offensive standpoint.
Eleven days later, however, a widespread cyber attack knocked out several U.S. governmental agencies. The brazen assault even crashed the websites that Gates had just created to fight such crimes. The other disabled sites included the communications of the Treasury Department, Secret Service, Federal Trade Commission and the Transportation Department.
Significantly, the attack was initiated on July 4th, the nation’s birthday, and it extended into the following week. Also, this was just days after President Obama had given a speech in which he had described Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin as having “one foot in the old ways of the Cold War.” Consequently, the attack was seen by some as a warning shot.
It is not known whether sovereign hacking was involved, but the computer systems of several large corporations in the United States were simultaneously down for a few days last year. It is only through information received from personal contacts that this became known to the writer. The media did not report it.
If you recall that Twitter crashed for several hours in August of ’08, you might be interested to know that it was the victim of a huge cyber attack. The actual target, it turned out, was a blogger in the country of Georgia who goes by the name Cyxymu. Some, but not all, believe that the disruption of Twitter was unintended collateral damage.
And Russia isn’t the only nation that has developed a highly sophisticated hacking capability. Last month, Google said it might shut down its search engine in China as a consequence of a cyber attack originating from that country which resulted in the theft of intellectual property from the company’s servers, as well as the targeting of the e-mail accounts of human rights activists. Google had already been growing increasingly uneasy over China’s broad crackdown on internet freedom.
Earlier this month, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told a Senate panel: “Malicious cyber activity is occuring on an unprecedented scale with extraordinary sophistication.” He went on to say that the nation’s communications infrastructure is “severely threatened.”
The signposts are as clear as a day in May. The global battlefield is shifting to cyberspace.