The Gaza flare up has been capturing public attention lately. It appears to be all about rockets, air strikes and horrible pictures of death and human suffering that has no end. But there is one more important aspect of the conflict that somehow misses the radar screen. On November 18, 2012 the Israeli government said it has been hit with more than 44 million cyber attacks since it started. «The war is being fought on three fronts», Camela Avner, Israel’s chief information officer, said on in a press release. «The first is physical, the second is the world of social networks and the third is cyber attacks». The example goes to show the cyber warfare is becoming part and parcel of a contemporary military conflict…
Ramping up efforts for global supremacy
The USA is the leader in the field and it ramps up the efforts to gain global cyber supremacy. On October 11, 2012 Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned of a «significant escalation of the cyber threat» with foreign actors targeting «critical infrastructure networks», including systems that operate chemical, electricity and water plants, as well as transport. He drafted new rules for the military that would enable it to move aggressively against digital attacks. The amended rules of engagement underline the need to defend Defense Department computer networks, «but also to be prepared to defend the nation and our national interests against an attack in or through cyberspace». He also said the Defense Department «has developed the capability to conduct effective operations to counter threats to our national interests». Panetta’s speech clearly implied that the military would be empowered to take the initiative in national cyber security policy. The US Defense Department has developed tools to trace attackers, he added, and a cyber-strike force that could conduct operations via computer networks. And it was now finalizing changes to its rules of engagement that would define when it could «confront major threats quickly». It should be noted the Secretary has experience of cyber warfare. Back In the days Panetta headed the CIA, he was involved in the cyber sabotage campaign that targeted Iran’s uranium enrichment program, described in detail in the book called Confront and Conceal by New York Times reporter David Sanger, which is devoted to a joint American-Israeli offensive cyber-attack operation in 2010 against Iran’s nuclear industry.
According to the Defense News (1), on October 4 General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency and commander of the US Cyber Command, told a Washington symposium, «The United States needs to develop offensive weapons in cyberspace as part of its effort to protect the nation from cyber-attacks». He pointed out, «If your defense is only to try to block attacks you can never be successful», As to him; «At times, the government has to look at what you have to do to stop an attack – stop it before it happens. Part of our defense has to consider offensive measures».
So the US military take on the responsibility for national cyber security and it is exactly offensive capabilities that the effort presupposes to acquire and enhance.
Cyber warfare efforts
In 2010 the US military established a new Cyber Command to unify and administer the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) computer networks to bolster capability to counter and launch cyber strikes. It is a unified sub-division of U.S. Strategic Command to operate 15,000 computer networks across 4,000 military bases in 88 countries. The services have their type cyber warfare components as well.
Upon assuming office in 2009, President Barack Obama declared cyberspace a strategic national asset and requested a complete cyberspace policy review. In May 2011 the International Strategy for Cyberspace (2) appeared to outline developing norms of state behavior promoting a secure, open Internet and other critical computer networks. The document marks the first time an administration has attempted to set forth the government’s vision for cyberspace, including goals for defense, diplomacy and international development. It says the US is ready to work with other nations, something that had been resisted previously. As practice shows it was close allies the document had in view. But what is more important it also stresses the right to use force to counter cyber threats.
The US military has started studying various strategies in cyberspace, including offensive weapons. By the end of September the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency asked contractors to come up with ideas on how to create systems and platforms that can engage in cyber combat (Plan X). It asks for innovative research in areas including building «battle units» that can perform cyber warfare and developing «high-level mission plans» that can act as auto-pilot functions. Last month it reported that its Plan has received an «unanticipated and overwhelming response from industry and academia».
In a public procurement document released on August 22 (3) the Air Force announced it was seeking concept papers from attack to mapping networks to cyber warfare support for offensive actions. This is a rare case of open public discussion of the US military’s desire to develop offensive cyber capabilities. The service made public the list of «Cyber Warfare Attack» capabilities detailing «the employment of cyberspace capabilities to destroy, deny, degrade, deceive, corrupt, or usurp the adversaries’ ability to use the cyberspace domain to his advantage». The technologies the Air Force is interested in include network mapping, ways to access networks, denial of service attacks, «data manipulation», and the ability to control «cyberspace effects». Beyond attack techniques, it also wants papers about cyberspace operations, «situational awareness capabilities», technologies to assess and visualize the effects of cyber-attacks, and technologies and methods to rapidly develop cyber capabilities, the procurement documents indicate, «authors whose concept papers are of interest may be invited to submit a formal proposal». Overall, the total value for all awards could reach up to $10 million. While unclassified, the Air Force makes it clear that the procurement is still sensitive. «Every precaution must be taken to protect potentially sensitive or classified material», the announcement said. «Such material should not be transmitted across open-source media like public phone, fax, Internet, or email».
Talking about offensive capability the US government has stopped short of confirming involvement in cyber weapons such as the Flame and Stuxnet viruses that have targeted Iran, but many analysts say there is evidence of US or Israeli involvement.
In January 2012 Mike McConnell, the former director of national intelligence at the National Security Agency under George W Bush, told Reuters (4) the US has already launched attacks on the computer networks of other nations. McConnell did not add any input as to what countries have been hit with American cyber warfare in the past, but he did confirm that the US has already used the ability. When asked by Reuters if the United States had the capability to destroy the computer system of an adversary, McConnell responded «Yes». When asked if it worked, he confirmed «Yes» as well. Other sources have since all but confirmed America’s involvement in the worm. German cyber security expert Ralph Langner told National Public Radio in 2011 that the US was «the leading force» behind Stuxnet, an assumption that many in other countries believe as well.
According to Associated Press on May 25 US Secretary of State of State Hillary Clinton made a rare public admission of the covert cyber war (5). She was referring to the American hacker attacks on the «al-Qaeda on the South of the Arabian Peninsula» website. Hillary Clinton became the first senior American official, who admitted the fact of the United States waging war in cyberspace. According to her cyber experts based at the State Department hacked Yemeni tribal websites.
Just after computer security labs earlier this year revealed details about the Flame virus, which they said had been infiltrating systems in Iran and elsewhere for years copying documents and recording audio. In the article Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyber Attacks Against Iran by David Sanger that saw light on on June 1, 2012, the New York Times (6) revealed that the virus was created through the joint efforts of Israel and the United States and that both countries had probably also been behind the Stuxnet worm that infiltrated the Iranian nuclear infrastructure a few years ago.
In a June 19 follow-up story, the Washington Post (7) confirmed the authorship of the Flame virus. It was designed to collect intelligence about Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon in preparation for possible cyber espionage to slow that development, the newspaper said. Crucially, the article also quoted cyber experts as saying that Flame was «designed to replicate across even highly secure networks».
Flame is modular computer malware discovered in 2012. It attacks Microsoft Windows run computers. The program is used for cyber espionage in the Middle East. Flame can spread to other systems over a local network or via USB stick. It records Skype conversations and turns infected computers into Bluetooth beacons which attempt to download information from nearby Bluetooth enabled devices. This data, along with locally stored documents, is sent on to one of several command and control servers that are scattered around the world. The program then awaits further instructions from these servers. According to Kaspersky, the CEO of the Russian firm, that unveiled the Flame, criticized the use of cyber warfare, calling it terror, not war.
According to Russian Kommersant newspaper October 18, 2012 edition, the Russian Ministry of Defense has announced tenders for research in the field of computer security. The newspaper’s sources noted that other countries’ military departments were conducting similar studies, and Russia should keep pace with them. This is a defensive step. Actually Russia has been working hard to marshal support in the United Nations for an «arms-limitation» treaty to limit the use of cyber weapons such as software code that could destroy an enemy’s computer systems. On September 12, 2011 Russia and China submitted a letter at the UN General Assembly outlining a proposal for an International Code of Conduct for Information Security. The proposal discusses the security challenges cyberspace presents to the international community and would establish rights and responsibilities of states in protecting information networks and cyber networks. It says states should respect domestic laws and sovereignty, but also calls for a multilateral approach within the framework of the United Nations to establish international norms and settle disputes about cyberspace.
While Russian officials have not commented on the discovery of Flame, the Russian Minister of Telecommunications and Mass Communications Igor Shegolev gave a speech this May calling for an international cyber weapon ban. Russia has also pushed for a bilateral treaty with the United States. Before that came out with a detailed plan for an international cyber security treaty at the international cyber security conference held in London in early November 2011. The United States has long objected to the Russian crusade for an arms control ban. «There is no broad international support for a cyber-weapon ban», says James A. Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. «This is a global diplomatic ploy by the Russians to take down a perceived area of U.S. military advantage». Still Russia steps up its campaign for a globally binding treaty on cyber security, warning that many states are acquiring cyber warfare capabilities that, if unleashed, could subvert economies and bring down critical infrastructure.
Hosting a gathering of experts at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany) in April 2012 to rally support for its controversial proposals for a U.N. convention to crack down on Internet crime and terrorism, Russia said 120 countries now conducted online war exercises to test the Internet’s military potential. «We won’t use nuclear weapons – it is a Doomsday weapon. But when we have a situation where we have millions of hacker attacks on our money, on our private computers, it means that it is a new form, a new level of confrontation», said Andrey Krutskikh, Russia’s recently appointed special coordinator on information technology at the Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Russia has been hosting such meetings in Germany for the past six years. This year it called for support for a treaty that would classify «information warfare» as a crime against international peace and security. According to Moscow, governments would aim to «maintain a balance between fundamental human rights and the effective counteraction of terrorist use of the information space». The initiative has made little headway due to reluctance of the part of Western countries. Still Krutskikh said agreeing such a treaty should be «a top priority». Russia’s proposals have already been rejected by the United States and Britain, which says attempts to restrict the free flow of information are doomed to fail. No U.S. officials took part in the forum. Krutskikh said Russia was not discouraged by opposition to its ideas, however, and would try to make progress in other discussions, such as a United Nations expert group on information security that is set to meet at the end of this year.
With all technologic advances in history, this cyber world has also been turned into a weapon that we know little about today. The development is this area is mostly secret and classified. But as time goes by it will become public like any other defense hush-hush technology. The attack capabilities have to be tested; there will be exercises to demonstrate the capabilities to deter attacks. Cyber-attacks are going to continue. They are cheap, near-anonymous and very effective. No coincidence the attacks have intensified in the Middle East now. The region has long become a testing ground for Western military concepts. We are witnessing the beginning of a new stage of arms race. Once so, the issue of cyber disarmament should come to the fore the way it takes place with strategic offensive weapons. History taught us the hard way to see the advantages of putting curbs on weapons of mass destruction. Weapons based on new physical principles, hypervelocity strike arms, UAVs and robots of all kinds, cyber warfare – all these revolutionary technological breakthroughs bode new arms races if not covered by international control agreements. The creation of collective security system supported by international agreements in this sphere is expedient and obvious.
1. The Defense News, October 4: http://www.defensenews.com/article/20121004/DEFREG02/310040008/U-S-Needs-Offensive-Weapons-Cyberwar-General
2. The International Strategy for Cyberspace http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/international_strategy_for_cyberspace.pdf
3. Broad Agency Announcement, August 22, 2012: https://www.fbo.gov/utils/view?id=48a4eeb344432c3c87df0594068dc0ce
4. Ex-U.S. spy chief says may take crisis for new cyber law: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/23/us-usa-cyber-idUSTRE80M2FZ20120123
5. Hillary Clinton confirms US al-Qaida cyber-attack, the Australian, May 25, 2012: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/clinton-confirms-us-al-qaida-cyber-attack/story-e6frg6so-1226366149846
6. Obama Order Sped up Wave of Cyber Attacks against Iran, the New York Times, June 12, 2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/01/world/middleeast/obama-ordered-wave-of-cyberattacks-against-iran.html?pagewanted=all
7. U.S., Israel Developed Flame Computer Virus to Slow Iranian Nuclear Efforts, Officials Say, the Washington Post, June 19: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-israel-developed-computer-virus-to-slow-iranian-nuclear-efforts-officials-say/2012/06/19/gJQA6xBPoV_story.html