Andrey NOVATSKY – Independent analyst and researcher
As early as 10-15 years ago it seemed that all the apocalypses-like scenarios of the “digital Pearl Harbor”, depicted by some American researchers, would always be not more than a fantasy. But four years ago Barack Obama named cyber threats (alongside with the problem of nuclear disarmament, the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns) among the key issues of ensuring the US national interests. Obama said that the digital infrastructure must become the US’ main “strategic resource”.
Since then some countries and international organizations have begun to seriously discuss a possibility of “digital Pearl Harbor” or its lighter versions (terrorist attacks, interference of criminal groups into the work of the units of critical infrastructure) in their official documents on security issues. According to estimates of some experts, by the end of 2010 more than 20 countries had been developing their own cyber weapons and some of them (Great Britain) even officially admitted it.
By now the US, which from the very beginning liked the idea of using cyber space for its military purposes, has suffered more cyber attacks than any other country. In 2007, several US servicemen in Iraq posted their photos in on their facebook pages forgetting that the photos had geo-tags showing the location where the photo had been taken. The photos captured not only the soldiers but also a new helicopter which became a good finding for Iraqi militants, who soon destroyed the helicopter. The US military have “difficult” relations with the new Internet services. It has been common knowledge for quite a long time already that Iraqi militants prepared many of their attacks on the US military facilities using detailed photos on Google Earth. After a virus slipped into the internal network of the US Department of Defense the Pentagon leadership banned US service from using portable memory devices. The story with Wiki leaks and the story of first class private Bradley Manning are only two best known of many cases.
The US also suffers big losses from cyber espionage. Pentagon had to admit several times that their network had been attacked by hackers who managed to steal part of the design of a new US jet fighter. Hackers also attacked the network of South Korea’s Defense Ministry and stole a plan of the deployment of US forces on the territory of the Korean peninsula in case of a possible conflict with North Korea. There has been a significant upsurge in number of cases of industrial espionage as well. Several years ago a scandal broke out after some hackers had managed to year get access to e-mails of top managers of three large US oil companies and to receive the information about the latest developments in the field geological explorations.
Another high profile case, which concerns not only the US is the disclosure and the liquidation of a spy network which had been active for two years in a number of European and Middle Eastern countries. The operators of that network had a remote control option which enabled them to make a video recording and later to transfer the data to the network’s clients.
Speaking about the stronger cyber threats the US government mentions a new symbolic “Axis of Evil”: China – Russia – North Korea. The US claims that most of the cyber attacks on informational infrastructure of the US and other Western countries are carried out from those three countries. China is the most dangerous of the three and in official reports of the US agencies it looks more like the SECTRE organization from James Bond movies than a real state. The US sees “attempts of Chinese hackers to weaken defense capabilities of the US” almost behind any failure in its information networks.
However, partly, these concerns are grounded – in the last 5 years China has managed to create a unique system of IT personnel training to ensure protection of its interests in cyberspace. In 2011, Beijing officially announced the creation of China’s national liberation army of “blue Internet troops” and this is only an explicit part of such preparations. The very fact that China openly declares the creation of such troops (usually Beijing keeps all the data on its armed forced classified) shows that it is simply no longer possible to hide the growing scale of the relevant activities. It is not necessary to hide it anyway: in compliance with its doctrine by 2020 China plans to create the most IT-powerful troops in the world.
In terms of cyber threats the US is paying less attention to Russia and North Korea, but their presence (as examples of classic threats in the minds of American people) make the role of China stronger. Very soon this Axis of Evil may get longer when two more countries – Iran and Ukraine – join it.
In the last 12 months, Iran, which became a victim of a cyber diversion (Stux.net virus) has made a great step forward in strengthening its cyberspace possibilities. According to some reports, the recent interception of US reconnaissance jets by Iranian armed forces became possible thanks to the activities of special cyber units. In his recent interview one of chiefs of Google E. Schmidt admitted he did not understand how Iran had managed to achieve such a level (though he hinted that China may be involved in it) but it poses a huge cyber threat for the US.
The US interest to Ukraine is the interest of some other kind. Western journalists openly call Ukraine “hackers’ Paradise” and “a country where hackers are not legally prosecuted”. The professionalism of Ukrainian IT specialists has gained international recognition. High level of training enables them to carry out outrageous operations on stealing money from Western bank accounts or accounts of private individuals. In most of the cases they manage to escape responsibility or are given very short terms in jail.
Recently, the US has been actively promoting the idea that cyber attacks must be regarded as acts of aggression with all the consequences that follow in particular a possibility of a responsive strike. The US was lobbying this idea already during the preparation of NATO’s new strategic concept but then it was not included in the final version of the document. Nevertheless, one of the high ranking officials in US Department of Defense said that in general the US is ready to respond a hacker attack with a missile attack. This statement, which absolutely contradicts the current International Law, was included in 2011 in “US International Strategy for Cyberspace” prepared by the US administration, under which America has the right to give an economic, political and diplomatic response to cyber incidents.
Iran, North Korea Iran and Ukraine are possible targets if such an approach is applied. This will also affect Russia and China. The absence of international norms regulating the inter-state relations in cyberspace increases the threat. Russia and China came up with initiatives to draft and adopt such documents but for some reason the US (“the party harmed”) strongly opposed them. Instead Washington proposed to expand the framework of the European convention on cyber security, which first of all was signed and ratified by the European Council member states Russia signed the document but did not ratify it because it found that some of its provisions challenged states’ sovereignty. For example, the Convention allows any member state to get access to computer data kept on the territory of other state without preliminary consent of the latter.
Ukraine ratified this Convention but did not fully integrate its provisions into its national legislation, which is yet to be reformed. In any case these are only interim measures which do not solve the problem. In conditions of stronger pressure from the US with regard to cyber threats it seems quite reasonable for Russia and Ukraine to join their efforts in promoting the Convention on international information security, which has been recently proposed by Russia.