The recent wave of cyber-attacks against South Korea (likely emanating from China) and Canada (definitively emanating from China) aren’t the first and won’t be the last assaults on Western computer networks, which is why the United States and its closest allies need to get serious about protecting cyberspace. The good news is that key military units are already at work applying the principles of collective defense to this newest theater of operations. The bad news is that the bad guys have gotten a head start.
Some argue that cyber-attacks aren’t a threat to real-world security. They’re wrong. Just consider the worrisome words of the head of the UN agency on information technology, who fears “the next world war could happen in cyberspace,” or ask our friends in Estonia and Georgia.
Estonia weathered what some call “Web War I” in 2007, when Russian nationalists unleashed a withering volley of “distributed denial of service” attacks that crashed networks across the country, including those supporting government agencies, media outlets, the mobile-phone system and the country’s largest bank.
A year after Estonia, Russian cyber-militiamen launched a digital invasion ahead of the Russian military’s ground invasion of Georgia, crippling government networks and servers.
If Russia’s cyber-attacks on Estonia and Georgia were intended to intimidate and confuse, China’s attacks are aimed at stealing and probing.
According to the German government, victimized by massive cyber-attacks in 2007-08, “The People’s Republic of China is intensively gathering political, military, corporate-strategic and scientific information in order to bridge their technological gaps as quickly as possible.”
In fact, Beijing tacitly encourages hundreds of quasi-independent hacker teams and even trains some at Chinese military bases. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reports that these teams of hackers have attacked government ministries in Canada, Europe, Japan, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and dozens of other countries.
Last month’s cyber-attacks against Canada hit the Finance Department and Treasury Board. This month’s attacks against South Korea, which may have been launched by China or North Korea, targeted the presidency, the foreign ministry, the nation’s largest bank, and U.S. and Korean military sites. A salvo of cyber-attacks against South Korea last June targeted the defense ministry and gathered secret information on South Korean plans to acquire UAV assets such as the Global Hawk from the United States.
Inside the U.S., China’s IT commando units have penetrated computer systems at defense firms, the White House, the State Department, NASA and the Pentagon. Similarly, The Wall Street Journal has reported on “pervasive” penetration of the U.S. electrical grid, whereby malicious software and sleeper switches have been implanted to allow China or Russia to disrupt service at a time of their choosing.
To prevent cyber-skirmishes from triggering real-world conflicts, several nations are calling on the UN to “create norms of accepted behavior in cyberspace,” as The Washington Post recently reported. But given that two of the countries calling for cyber-cooperation are Russia and China—each guilty of some of the most egregious cyber-assaults to date—it’s unlikely that much will come from the UN’s plan for cyber-peace in our time.
A more likely source of peace and security in this new frontier is developing the assets, doctrine and resolve to deter and, if necessary, answer in kind cyber-attacks. The U.S. military is apparently doing just that. Reagan might have called it “cyber-peace through cyber-strength.”
Warning that “We lack dominance in cyberspace and could grow increasingly vulnerable if we do not fundamentally change how we view this battle-space,” Gen. James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has argued that it’s time to “apply the principles of warfare to the cyber-domain.” Gen. Keith Alexander, who heads the Pentagon’s new Cyber Command, envisions an approach to cyber-security that puts “defense and offense together.”
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