Will the Next War Be a Cyber War?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine got a lot of people talking about World War III and what it might look like. One common concern is the possibility of cyberwarfare. Cyberwarfare is not contained to a battlefield and cyberattacks on Ukraine could have effects well beyond its borders, even affecting the United States.

Even before tanks were on the ground Russian hackers were attacking Ukraine. The Washington Post reported that at least two cyberattacks occurred in the days leading up to the invasion.

  • Hackers took down the U.S. satellite Internet firm Viasat starting Feb. 24, as Russia began invading Ukraine. Viasat has released a new overview that details the timeline of the “multifaceted and deliberate cyberattack” on its European satellite network, KA-SAT. This led to a targeted denial of service attack that appeared to be focused on disrupting service to Ukraine.
  • CrowdStrike researchers say a group called “Ember Bear” was behind malware dubbed “Whispergate,” which targeted Ukrainian government agencies in the run-up to the invasion. According to CrowdStrike, Ember Bear is “an adversary group that has operated against government and military organizations in Eastern Europe since early 2021.”

“Some people think cyberwar won’t be violent — that’s not true,” said Joseph Steinberg, a cybersecurity expert. “There are real-world repercussions to cyberattacks and it’s only going to get worse.”

In an attack that shuts down a power grid, crippling hospitals, law enforcement and other critical services, you can certainly imagine that there would be casualties. “The cyberattacks we saw earlier this year (2021)? That’s not even the tip of the iceberg — that’s the cold air coming off the tip of the iceberg,” said Steinberg. “The cyberattack that directly causes people to die — it’s going to happen — that’s when we hit the tip of the iceberg.”

Conventional warfare has rules that nations have agreed to regarding what is fair and what conduct is out of bounds. Although these rules may be disregarded at times, they are generally accepted by most nations. There are no such agreed upon rules in cyberwarfare. Civilian facilities, such as water distribution systems, financial systems and hospitals, may be targeted. Even if they are not targeted, they could become collateral damage in an all-out cyberattack.

To protect yourself and those you’re digitally connected to from cyberattacks, Steinberg recommends not using public Wi-Fi for sensitive tasks, avoiding risky downloads in emails or on websites, backing up your data often, following proper password guidelines, and using some sort of security software.

“We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, via ABC News, “because everything is connected. The vulnerability of one can become the vulnerability of many.”

And when it comes to cyberwar, we are all vulnerable because there are no ground rules in the cyberworld. That’s why many cybersecurity experts have begun pushing for a Digital Geneva Convention or some other global treaty to establish the rules of cyberwarfare.

“Because this is a real threat and it’s not the future,” said Steinberg. “This is not a theory. This is not paranoia. It’s the world we live in.”