The Changing Image of Cyber Warfare
In this briefing, we look at the public perception of cyber warfare, how it has changed in the past 5 years and what these changes indicate from a forecasting perspective.
The concept of warfare wrought through computer systems is decades old and has captured the public imagination since at least the early 1980s when the movie WarGames was released. The movie conveniently also illustrates the perception that cyber warfare held for most of the time since then: A computer system directly controlling conventional or nuclear weaponry is compromised or at least disturbed by a hacker, leading to all-out use of physical force.
This image persisted from the 1980s all the way into the early 2010s. Even during the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, when allegations that Russia had used cyber attacks to shut down parts of Georgia’s broadcasting and civic infrastructure surfaced, the perception that this was merely a step towards cyber attacks leading to the application of physical force held.
A Shift in Perception
From the mid-2010s, this perception began to shift, as cyber attacks from governmental actors became more common. Primary concern is now given to targets such as the electricity grid and internet infrastructure of a nation as well as indirect attacks, using information gathered during attacks to discredit targets in the public eye. Comparatively little is said about weapons systems being compromised. What caused this shift?
For one, precedents were set. The US election of 2016 and interference by hackers who released private emails from Clinton’s team, temporary internet outages due to an attack on central DNS servers earlier in 2016, alleged North Korean involvement in hacks against Sony in 2015 and alleged Russian involvement in hacks against Yahoo in 2014 are the most notorious examples.
These attacks managed to have significant impact on their respective targets. The temporary DNS outage highlighted how many businesses are ultimately dependent on working internet connections and how much damage can be done by jamming them. At the same time, the identity of the attackers behind each of these major attacks has not so far been proven by a court (an indictment has been issued for the Russians allegedly involved in the Yahoo attacks). The difficulty of proving identity of attacker during cyber attacks has turned out to be one of their major strengths when used by government actors.
The effectiveness of an attack is measured as the cost-performance between effort, impact and consequences. While leveraging cyber attacks into conventional warfare might have a higher impact, the current style of low-effort and low-consequence operations appear to be more cost-effective at this point in time.
Secondly, many weapons systems - especially those controlling nuclear arsenals - are ancient by the standards of computer technology. Nuclear control systems often rely on floppy disks or in some cases even punch cards. Much of the technology predates the concept of computer networking. For all practical purposes, these systems are thus air-gapped and incredibly hard to attack even for a well-versed and funded attacker.
While it is virtually impossible to make an exact prediction regarding the future of cyber warfare, we are at this point in time operating under the assumption that the current style of using cyber attacks to bring down network infrastructure or acquire damaging information will be the primary style for the foreseeable future.
If an enemy’s political parties and economic infrastructure can be severely impacted with relatively easy and hard-to-prove attacks, it simply makes no economic sense to target the exponentially better secured conventional weapons systems.
This is not to mean, that cyber warfare does not have troubling prospects. Any country that has its networking connectivity completely crippled would effectively experience a sudden double-digit percentage drop in economic activity. This impact - if sustained - would have economic effects similar to those of a nuclear strike but without causing the immediate repercussions which nuclear warfare would entail.