By Sam Buisman
Entering into a war is like stepping into a river: while the environment is familiar, your immediate surroundings are constantly changing. War always involves a number of opposing parties engaged in armed conflict, but the means by which it is waged have changed drastically over time. “Armed” embodies a different definition for every war as industry and innovation relentlessly develop more efficient ways for us to exterminate our fellow man. The one constant in the weaponry of war is that it hasn’t been constant at all.
This militant cycle has led humanity to the brink of another revolution in conflict: cyber warfare. The unparalleled expansion of the Internet has already redefined violence and its mediums in the 21st century. Over 60 million cybersecurity incidents occurred globally in 2015, a dramatic rise from around four million incidents in 2009, and these attacks are becoming more complex, costly, and crippling over time.
No target is too large or too small for a cyber attack. In 2005, the United States developed the computer worm Stuxnet which was used to infect thousands of computers in Iranian nuclear facilities, disabling 984 of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges over the next five years. In this instance, a few lines of Android code were able to cause more damage to a foreign power’s nuclear program than traditional hard power weaponry. Years later, a Russian malware attack against Ukraine allowed Russia to target and then destroy 80% of Ukraine’s Howitzer artillery guns, allowing the Russians to invade Crimea nearly free of Ukrainian shelling.
Alternatively, attacks can target businesses or other agencies through ransomware, breaches, or through other methods of cybercrime. Experts believe that ransomware attacks extorted over $1 billion in 2017, a 400% increase from 2016. These strikes are continuing into 2018. Just last month, Atlanta’s municipal government was taken hostage by ransomware. Government employees found their files inaccessible and their computer networks disabled by hackers who demanded $51,000 in Bitcoin for restored access.
Hackers can also breach information networks to extort or damage firms. The most infamous example of this style of breach may be North Korea’s 2014 breach of Sony Pictures, seemingly in retaliation to the company’s upcoming movie “The Interview” which ridiculed the hermit nation and its head of state. Hackers published both personal information of employees and unreleased movies to the Internet. Sony’s stock price dropped by 10% and the company canceled the large theatrical release of the offending film, settling for a limited theater run months later.
Even individuals are not safe from these new weapons of war. Exposure of consumer data has led to large-scale credit card theft and identity fraud globally. The September 2017 breach of Equifax revealed personal information of 143 million Americans, nearly half of the population, including 203 thousand credit card numbers. More recently, on April 1st of this year, hackers targeted the luxury retailer Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, obtaining more than 500 million credit card numbers. This type of cybercrime has a monstrous impact on the global economy annually, damages totaling around $445 billion.
In the case of the United States, the electronic threats it is facing continue to worsen. On the consumer side, America has developed a taste for everyday devices that are connected to the Internet such as smartwatches or smart refrigerators. Experts expect that by 2020, the number of Internet-connected devices will surpass 50 billion in the United States. Despite their popularity, these devices are even more vulnerable to breaches than existing ones as they lack many necessary security features, thus further endangering private information.
American infrastructure is also becoming more reliant on computer networks and therefore more susceptible to cyber attacks. Financial transactions, air traffic control, and the power grid within the United States are already dependent on these networks, and as the United States moves forward with autonomous vehicles, unmanned aircraft, and a further reliance on Internet-connected devices for physical infrastructure, both the risk and magnitude of a cyber attack on our infrastructure will increase. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged that Russian hackers have been able to target and infiltrate multiple facets of American infrastructure, including energy and nuclear organizations, giving the hackers the ability to completely shut off parts of the power grid.
The incredible and increasing impacts of cyber attacks lead to a clear conclusion: cyber warfare has revolutionized the modern battlefield and is changing how conflict is conducted. States are now racing to harness the destructive and explosive powers of online espionage and outmatch their rivals in a digital arms race. Notable powers like the United States, China, Russia, Israel, and rogue players like North Korea and Iran have all indicated an embark upon Herculean efforts to become the globe’s digital superpower.
Despite its perception of military prowess, the United States has quickly fallen behind in this race. In a scathing report released in February of 2017, the Department of Defence Task Force on Cyber Deterrence concluded that the United States’ cyber capabilities pale in comparison to those of other states, including those of China and Russia. Additionally, the report found even if reform is undertaken to strengthen American cybersecurity the U.S. will still lag behind these nations for about a decade. And such certainly seems the case as the U.S. is repeatedly made the victim of a series of hacks and breaches. Regardless, the implication is clear: the future of United States relative hard power is within cybersecurity.
Yet, one crucial factor may hold the United States back from investing in cybersecurity that always seems to nip at the heels of the United States whichever way it turns: partisan politics. The perceptions and rhetoric of the Trump administration are delegitimizing the threat of cyber attacks and preventing it from becoming the priority it needs to be.
On both the campaign trail and in the White House, Trump has downplayed or denied the influence that Russian hackers had on the 2016 presidential election. During a campaign speech, Candidate Trump urged the Russian hackers who had leaked DNC emails to Wikileaks to go after the disappeared emails from Hillary Clinton’s private email server. After the election, due to the loss of the popular vote the Trump administration couldn’t afford any other challenges to its legitimacy. President Trump repeatedly insisted that any insistence of Russian meddling is a hoax cooked up by the Democratic Party or dishonest media, regardless of the consensus of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia was responsible for the 2016 hack of the DNC and attempted to influence voter attitudes and behavior.
Only recently has the President been willing to suggest that the Russians played a role in shaping the election, and it took a Justice Department indictment of 13 Russians involved in the election meddling to arrive at this conclusion.
Aside from the massive implications for American and global democracy, this dismissal of Russian involvement diminishes the importance of U.S. cybersecurity. By satirizing Russian hacking on the campaign trail and insisting that it is merely a liberal smear from within the White House, President Trump has framed cybersecurity as a non-issue for his supporters. Polling data from this January demonstrates that 43% of registered voters view the Russian investigation as “witch hunt” and an additional 5% are indifferent. The legitimate claims that other nations, including Russia, are surpassing the United States in cyber warfare and that our country is vulnerable to these types of attacks are now written off liberal propaganda.
Ironically, the United States is paying no mind to cybersecurity over partisan mudslinging even as its vulnerability increases and comparative shortcomings exacerbate. Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and individual hackers may soon find themselves with an edge over the military might of the United States and may use that advantage to crush the U.S. under the weight of its own technological reliance.
Furthermore, considering that these tools may be added to the arsenal of states with strong hard power capabilities, such as China and Russia, nothing less than American military hegemony may be at stake. If the United States wants to maintain its high status in the global order, the Trump administration needs to drop its facade and step into the river.