The Wright brothers flew the world’s first airplane in 1903. Just eight years later an airplane was used in military operations in Libya. At the close of WW II in 1945, the U.S. was the only nuclear power, and many people believed that, because of the enormous complexity involved in constructing a nuclear weapon, our monopoly would be long-lasting. It lasted four years. The first use of computer hacking is uncertain, but computer hacking is now widely practiced and hacking is used by governments as a weapon. Modern societies are increasingly dependent on computer software and electronic controls and, therefore, increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks.
The first prominent shot was fired by some highly skilled operators in a super-secret cell of a secretive agency—the NSA (U.S. National Security Agency). The NSA in conjunction with equally skilled Israeli operators designed a malicious computer code that was surreptitiously inserted into Iran’s nuclear computer controls causing the centrifuges to malfunction. It was a clever operation but, unfortunately, the malware code was soon circulating around the world. Code specialists were able to identify the source. The Genie was out of the bottle. Other nations decided that they, too, could play in the code implant league.
Countries or their agents plant code in other countries’ government or commercial computer systems for several reasons. One purpose might be described as state sponsored vandalism, i.e., doing some damage but not sufficient to generate a military response. Another purpose is espionage, that is, gathering information about a rival or enemy country. A more ominous purpose is to plant a code that could disable weapons systems and any other system that would cripple an enemy in the event of war. The urgent need to detect and neutralize malware in both government and civilian computer systems is creating a new occupation for a substantial number of people.
Only about two years after NSA tinkered with Iran’s centrifuges, Iran launched its own cyber attack on Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s oil production company. The attack destroyed approximately 35,000 computers. Saudi Arabia rushed to buy 50,000 new computer hard drives to replace all Aramco computer hard drives that were infected or may have been infected by the malicious code implant.
Five years ago, while signing an Executive Order, the President of the United States made the following statement. “We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems.” More recently, a batch of the NSA’s most prized, most secretive code escaped into the public domain. According to David Sanger writing in his book The Secret Weapon, “Inside the NSA, this breach was regarded as a far greater debacle than the Snowden affair.”
North Korea has launched disruptive cyber intrusions, and both China and Russia are major league players in the cyber war games. When Sony Studios was about to release a movie portraying North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in an unfavorable manner, North Korea launched a cyber attack on the studio. More recently North Korea gained credit for a cyber attack on entities in several countries, including medical services in England. That didn’t seem to make sense unless it was a practice run or a demonstration of capability. North Korea has also raided other countries central banks to obtain what might be called no repayment loans.
China’s computer scavengers raided the U.S. Government to extract extremely detailed information for 21 million American citizens including those who had provided the information for background security checks. Russia hacked into Ukraine’s computers and caused havoc, and the Russians have apparently been quite busy elsewhere.
On the commercial side, Target Stores contracted for air conditioning and heating service. One of the employees for the contractor is thought to have inserted a personal USB device (flash drive) into a work computer. It contained a virus that worked its way into Target Stores systems and enabled the theft of customer credit card information. Insurance companies now offer cyber liability insurance.
Computer technology can do wonderous things, but it has also been turned into a military weapon that places civilian communities squarely on the battlefield even if the exploding shells and bombs are far away. Meanwhile, everything electronic is a bullseye for cyber warfare target practice.
Jack Stevenson is retired, served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.