Many are already referring to the renewed tension between the West and Russia as Cold War 2.0. However, the world seems unlikely to return to the days of the nuclear scare, and warheads will hopefully be left to rust in peace. Instead, the new theater of confrontation will be cyberspace, with experts predicting cyberwarfare to escalate in 2017 to an intensity we have never seen before.
Events seem to have been snowballing towards this for a while. Nations traditionally have been using hard power – coercion through military and economic superiority – to bind other countries to their will. Beyond World War II and the Cold War there was another layer added to this, the so-called soft power – using cultural means to persuade potential adversaries to co-opt willingly. Cyber capabilities, although resembling a kind of hard power, have recently arisen as a new layer through which nations and non-state actors influence each other.
2016 as the warmup for things to come
Some of the conventional-wisdom-defying events that took place last year – most notably, the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory – could be viewed as examples of hard and soft power being subverted through cyber means. Even though what the media is referring to as a hacking of the US elections by Russia may not have involved any hacking of actual voting machines, there is still a strong case to be made that the elections were hacked.
The Democratic National Convention emails that leaked did so after Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, fell for a phishing scheme. The obtained information was used, with the help of the media that spread reports on it, to social-engineer an environment that swayed voters away from the one candidate in the election. The Republicans were also reportedly hacked, but whatever was stolen from them wasn’t used in that manner.
In 2016 we also witnessed the largest distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack in history. It caused a major portion of the US Internet traffic to cease, and brought a number of services to a standstill, including Netflix, Amazon, Paypal, and Twitter. The attack was reportedly carried out by a non-state actor – a group of hackers retaliating after Ecuador cut off Julian Assange’s Internet access. But it makes one ponder what would a state-backed attack look like.
Cyberwarfare could inflict major damage
One of the A.T. Kearney Global Business Policy Council’s predictions for 2017 is that we will witness a crippling cyberattack by one nation-state on another’s critical infrastructure. The Council’s experts narrow the target list to major, open economies with internet-enabled infrastructures like the USA, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Such an attack would likely target the country’s power grid – hackers have experience in impairing these systems, as shown for example in the conflict in Ukraine.
Insurance market Lloyd’s of London has calculated the potential economic damage of a scenario in which hackers shut down a large part of the US East Coast power grid. Depending on the severity of the attack, the cost comes between $243 billion and $1 trillion. Beyond the money, you’d have 93 million people without power, a healthcare system failure, disruption of water supplies, chaos in transport networks…
…Turns out an adversary many not need nuclear warheads after all. The public awareness about the threat, however, is likely to bring cryptography, as the foundation of cybersecurity, at the center of everyone’s lives. Instead of instructing schoolchildren how to duck under their desks in case of a nuclear attack, we will be preaching the gospel of encryption, using and storing private keys, securing communications and so on. It is a brave new world you better be prepared for.