Cyber Warfare: The next Cold War
Cyber Warfare: The next Cold War
Instead of military assaults, today's adversaries hire coders to create attacks that can run autonomously for years, says Stephen Lawton.

History books tell us that the Cold War ended in roughly 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But, today's security practitioners say the Cold War has simply morphed from a threat of armed conflict among major world powers into a battle of computer-savvy “troops” fighting from the comfort of offices.

Instead of countries spending billions of dollars to create new weapons, supply massive armies and spend millions of dollars (or rubles, francs or yuan) fighting conventional attacks against political, economic, religious or commercial foes, today's adversaries hire code-writers to create attacks that can run autonomously for years with little or no human intervention. By repurposing code to spawn new attacks, the cost of cyber warfare can be a fraction of the cost of a conventional war.

While China and Russia generally are considered by industry experts to be the leaders in state-sponsored cyber attacks against the United States, they are not the only countries to have sophisticated espionage infrastructures in place, says Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer at Alexandria, Va.-based Mandiant. Other nations with sophisticated capabilities include North Korea, Iran, France, Israel and, of course, the United States.

North Korea, Bejtlich says, uses technology against its neighbor, South Korea, and to make political statements against the West, generally resulting in attacks against the United States, he says. Iran primarily uses its cyber weaponry to suppress internal dissidents.

In the past, he says, U.S. politicians spoke in general terms about cyber attacks, choosing not to name those believed to be responsible. That all changed late last year when the Office of the National Counter Intelligence Executive released a report, “Foreign Spies Stealing U.S. Economic Secrets in Cyber space,” which specifically identified China and Russia as key participants. However, the report also said U.S. allies are actively involved.

“Certain allies and other countries that enjoy broad access to U.S. government agencies and the private sector conduct economic espionage to acquire sensitive U.S. information and technologies,” the report states. “Some of these states have advanced cyber capabilities.”

It cited four factors that will shape the cyber environment over the next three to five years. These are: A technological shift, including the use of smartphones, laptops and other internet-connected devices; an economic shift that changes the way corporations, government agencies and other organizations share storage, computing, networking and application resources; a cultural shift in the U.S. workforce, where younger employees mix personal and professional activities; and a geopolitical shift as globalization of the supply chain and worker access increase the ability for malicious individuals to compromise the integrity and security of computing devices.

Jared Carstensen, manager of enterprise risk services at Deloitte in Dublin, Ireland, likes to differentiate between cyber crime and cyber espionage because the end goals differ significantly. For an attack to be considered a cyber crime, he says, the adversary does so for financial gain. This typically includes attacks designed to obtain credit card or bank data. Cyber espionage, on the other hand, is designed to steal intellectual property, and/or disable or attack critical infrastructure. It often is performed for political purposes.