Cyber war is here to stay

The conflict between Georgia and Russia looks like it has been brought to a halt for now, but like many modern conflicts, the physical war was accompanied by an online exchange

Tags: Cyber crimeHackingPolitics
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By  Mark Sutton Published  August 13, 2008

The conflict between Georgia and Russia looks like it has been brought to a halt for now, but like many modern conflicts, the physical war was accompanied by an online exchange. Like the real world conflict, this was a one-sided affair, with official Georgian websites falling rapidly to denial of service attacks, seemingly launched by Russian hackers, and little evidence of a Georgian reply.

This outbreak of cyber-hostilities was typical of the emerging trend of cyberwar. For a start, it's hard to tell whether the attacks were genuinely coordinated to accompany real world attacks, or whether the sudden ramping up of DDoS attacks by ‘Russian' groups against Georgian sites - and attacks had begun at least three weeks ago - was simply hackers driven on by nationalist fervour to increase the volume of attacks.

Secondly, it's almost impossible to tell who is really responsible for the attacks. There's plenty of evidence that most of the attacks originated in Russia, and a strong suggestion that the criminal hacker group Russian Business Network was involved, but no real suggestion that Russian authorities are to blame.

Cyber warfare isn't new exactly - the Kosovo conflict of the 1990s saw hackers of many different nationalities trying to take over web servers, and even the White House site was taken offline for a while. Since then, political disputes and armed conflicts between nations have often been accompanied by online tussles ranging from web site defacement to denial of service attacks or site hijacking. The Middle East has seen more than its fair share of cyber warfare, from cyber jihadis in Iraq, through to irate Iranian hackers defacing sites that call the Persian Gulf by any other name.

In many ways the blurring boundary between criminal hackers who'll sell their services and hacktivists that don't mind breaking the law make for the perfect cyber warriors. Existing botnets can be turned against target sites for DDoS attacks, criminal tools can be distributed to activist communities online, and very soon you have a cheap, self-sustaining online attack force that the authorities can deny responsibility for.

The damage that is done by these partisan groups so far has mainly been focused on minor acts of website sabotage and propaganda, but that's not to say that the attacks are insignificant. In an era where more and more of us turn to the Internet for information in times of crisis, taking down official web sites is more than just a nuisance, it's a means to spread confusion and misinformation.

What's more worrying, is what happens when we get the next stage of cyber war. If ‘amateur' hackers can take down public websites, what happens when they make a concerted effort to concentrate on financial systems (as was attempted against Estonia) or communications networks? How vulnerable are the vital systems that manage infrastructure or transportation? What happens when online attacks are coordinated with physical actions like cutting of fibre optic cables or destruction of mobile phone masts? What happens when the amateurs are replaced by professionals? The current crop of cyber warriors might be as effective at the moment as World War I pilots dropping bricks out of their biplanes for want of bombs, but there's no doubt that a new arena of conflict is now open.

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