In Cyber Warfare, Everyone Worldwide Can Become Collateral Damage

As Russia attacked Ukraine, global leaders have been very careful in making statements that could escalate the conflict into World War III or a nuclear war, which can affect everyone around the world. However, the reality is everyone is already impacted not only by the inflationary impact of the war, but also the surge in resulting cyberattacks.

Major cyber warfare is ongoing, and the attacks are not limited to specific states or establishments. Everyone can become a target–collateral damage in a war, with one party desperate for success after weeks of unflattering developments on the battlefield. The infamous group Anonymous expressed its intention to “punish” Russia, but this is by no means an assurance that hackers have trained their eyes on Putin and the Kremlin.

Cybercriminals are unscrupulous, and most are likely taking advantage of the turmoil to maximize their loot or the trail of damage they can leave. It is important for businesses and other organizations to be well acquainted with the realities of cyber warfare to be prepared for the consequences and be resilient enough to survive attacks.

The unfortunate realities of cyber warfare

Cyber warfare is largely a series of cyberattacks or concerted cyber assault efforts that focus on a particular country, seeking to inflict damage on a country by attacking its cyberspace infrastructure and resources. The attacks have a spectrum of goals, which include the derailment of economies, effecting chaos and discord, stealing valuable data, extorting governments and businesses, disrupting intelligence gathering, and spreading propaganda.

Some may compare cyber warfare to actual war on the battlefields, but it is remotely similar. For one, there are no established rules or treaties governing cyber warfare. Anyone can do anything. Practically, nothing is off-limits, including the possible mass killing of civilians similar to what happened in the reported hacking that attempted to poison the water supply of a town in Florida.

If the state-backed hackers are brilliantly skilled enough and are collaborating with insiders, they may take over the weapon systems of military superpowers and launch missile strikes wherever they please.

Also, states can hire cyberterrorists from different countries and launch a concerted attack against another country. Countries may also forge secret alliances to gang up on another country. Rogue states can hide behind deniability as they help aggressors in dominating cyberspace.

Different ways of skinning a cat

There are seven main types of cyber warfare attacks.

  • Espionage – As the word suggests, it is about stealing information, particularly confidential data, that can benefit the attacking state. This is done in a number of ways including the deployment of botnets, spear phishing, and social engineering.
  • Sabotage – This also involves the stealing of secret data that can be used to achieve specific disruptive goals. It can be to help someone win an election by releasing damaging information against the beneficiary candidate’s opponent. The stolen information may also be used to dilute citizens’ trust in their government.
  • Distributed Denial-of-Service Attacks (DDoS) – One of the most common attacks in cyber warfare, this involves the overloading of website or web app servers to make them unavailable. The main targets are government websites, media outfits, as well as government and private web services. States use DDoS to shut down sources of information, so they can supplant them with their own (corrupted or truth-bearing) information sources.
  • Propaganda attacks – Wars always come with a propaganda component, which aims to demoralize enemies or convince citizens to surrender and welcome their “liberators.” Hackers can take over websites or the social media accounts of persons of authority/influence to spread information that is in line with the narrative of what the attacking state wants people to believe.
  • Electrical power grid and other public utility attacks – The operation of modern electrical grids has been made more efficient by bringing systems online and having them automated in some aspects. Unfortunately, this allows cybercriminals to remotely disable power grids or disrupt operations to adversely affect the targeted country.
  • Economic disruption – Hackers can attack supply chains to imperil economic activities or influence economies in ways that benefit the attacking state. The operations of stock markets, banking institutions, and financial technology operations can also be interrupted or completely halted to create problems that influence the war response effort of a country.
  • Surprise attacks – This can be any kind of cyberattack designed to weaken a state’s defenses and aid war efforts on the actual battlefield. These surprise attacks are often launched in the context of hybrid warfare.

How the attacks affect everyone

As mentioned, cyber warfare is typically not limited to two or more warring states. There are no rules, and everyone gets to do what they have to do to achieve their objectives. Cyber espionage, for example, may be used on a neighboring country not involved in the war to extort the latter to do things in favor of the attack perpetrator.

The same goes with sabotage. State-backed threat actors may attack governments or businesses of countries that are not parties to the war to force them to choose to provide unwilling assistance, especially in skirting the economic sanctions imposed by international bodies or economic power blocs.

DDoS and propaganda attacks are commonly employed against businesses and organizations that are vocal in criticizing warmongers or aggressors. Perpetrators try to sway public opinion to their side, so they try to silence or punish critics and flood forums and social media with online content that justify their actions or convince people to subscribe to their narrative.

Russia has been attempting to overwhelm Western social media with its propaganda. There have been strong efforts to counter this propaganda, though. Still, there are many posts that manage to influence people, especially since some media outfits are deliberately helping the Kremlin in conveying and promoting its message.

Fortunately, there have been no reports of successful major cyber warfare-related attacks on power grids and public utilities. However, authorities and industry analysts acknowledge the vulnerability of utility infrastructure in different parts of the world. “It is realistically possible that Russia could respond with retaliatory measures, such as a cyberattack,” says America’s cyber threat analyst Austin Merritt.

The economic disruption of attacks, moreover, is a logical course of action, especially for cash-stripped warring countries that have been subjected to economic sanctions. There are reports that suggest that ransomware are being deployed en masse globally to generate funds through ransoms that are usually paid in cryptocurrency.

Ransomware is a serious concern, as it is not easy to detect and many victims opt to just pay the ransom to avoid the inconveniences. According to GRC World Forums, the average ransomware payment in 2021 was $570,000, which is nearly double the average amount logged in the previous year.

The attacks

Downplaying cyber warfare benefits no one. Boosting cybersecurity defenses in response to the escalation of cyberattacks is not just a guideline, but an important strategy to ensure resilience and avoid the unnecessary damages and related expenses that come with cyberattacks. Nobody wants to end up becoming collateral damage in a tussle among cyber warfare behemoths. It is only logical to be adequately prepared and to have a sensible incident response plan to deal with the consequences of becoming a victim of indiscriminate cyber assaults.

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