Author: Namig HASANOV
Humankind entered the 21st century with a new type of war, cyber wars, where the scene of "bloody" clashes is the global Internet network, computers and servers. But the battles are no less complex, and even more advanced technologically.
It all started at the turn of the millennium. The Y2K problem exposed the vulnerability of global process control systems. Countries of the world spent about $300 billion to solve the problem. In addition, hundreds of computer specialists gained access to previously unknown network capabilities. These opportunities could be used for various purposes: personal enrichment, improvement of life, desire to spoil the former employer, or simply out of ideological considerations. So, in 2001, the network antiglobalists attacked the site of the famous Davos Forum: the damage was minimal, but they made themselves known.
Vulnerability of the global network was adopted by the military and special services of many countries of the world. The impossibility of open large-scale war between the big powers due to the nuclear balance prompts new hybrid wars, one of which is precisely cyber-attacks. To do this, security forces unite hackers in groups putting them in the service of the state. These wars are conducted secretly, as no one declares war on anyone. An exception is the hacker group Anonymous, which declared war on the Islamic State several years ago.
The complexity of offensive cyber operations is also noteworthy. If in the real world military targets have quite tangible coordinates, then computers and servers that can change their addresses quickly enough become virtual targets.
Having been accustomed over the centuries to conventional warfare, the military, planning cyber operations, can quickly lose ground. The power of modern weapons allows one to cover huge spaces in seconds, and the defending side will not be able to take counter-measures adequately. It is enough to change a small part of the program and thereby make the cyber weapon used against it completely meaningless. As a result, goal lists need to be updated in real time, otherwise they will not be of any use.
So, most recently, Russia said that the US was trying to break into its energy infrastructure. At the same time, Russians noted that these attempts were unsuccessful thanks to immediate actions taken.
However, less secure networks can regularly suffer from successful massive attacks from the outside. One of the recent examples is the several blackouts in Venezuela. A failure in the energy supply system led to serious disruptions in life, and at night the country was completely plunged into total darkness. Venezuelan authorities directly pointed to the US as the culprit. Although Americans denied all the accusations, the strained relations between the countries make it possible to take a look at the opposite side of the Gulf of Mexico.
It has long been known that the US has a separate paramilitary cyber command, which, according to experts, is actually not subordinate to the country's president.
Among the top three world leaders in cyber weapons are Russia and China. If Moscow is accused of creating “deep fakes” and information war, then the Chinese hackers may well incapacitate a specific program or system for a long time. This happened recently when the social network Telegram suddenly “sagged” for several hours. The fact is that rioters in Hong Kong use this particular social network to communicate with themselves, rightly considering it to be the most protected app at the moment.
Information war and pseudo-attacks
Artificial intelligence spurred the disinformation revolution. The era of post-truth, when it is not the event itself that matters, but its presentation, dictates its own rules.
Creating necessary “meanings” is a rather painstaking task, but success here gives quite tangible dividends. Various public organisations formed around them are also weapons of network warfare. It is quite a difficult task today to separate the truth from fiction.
More recently, it has become a new trend to launch fake news about famous statesmen on the Internet. Although such lies do not stay in the Internet for more than a day, they can sow panic in power structures, and create a feeling of lack of security and, as a result, total distrust among the population.
Access to simplified deep fake codes is spreading fast. Some programs are so simple that even a student who did not know the basics of computer science can use them to create advanced fakes. For example, the new Russian application FaceApp is a program that changes the faces of users providing them with a seemingly fascinating pastime. However, the US Senate have already voiced its concerns, as they think the app can help Russia to find access to the databases of ordinary Americans.
Another part of cyber wars is pseudo-attacks, when one of the parties only imitates a global attack, in fact revealing new defenses, their vulnerability and gaining the necessary experience. Indeed, it is the experience and human factor that become the main weapon on the new theatre of operations.
On the other hand, there is a sense of self-superiority, which may cause the coming global cyber war. After a successful joint operation of the Israeli and American intelligence services called Stuxnet, when the Iranian nuclear program was dropped a couple of years back, the arms race in this area has reached unprecedented proportions.
Not only states but also private individuals wage cyber wars, which do not require huge funds and years of preparation at all. The image of a hacker as a man in a hood sitting in front of a large monitor (or even in front of two) is rather imposed by Hollywood and does not look real. He can be anyone. For example, large funds disappeared in one of the Ukrainian banks. When the security service has finally identified the culprit, it turned out that he was a young man who was acquainted with one of the woman employees of the bank, who sent her his photo with an embedded trojan.
Today, it is the banking systems that are the most sought-after goal of cybercriminals. According to statistics, about 90% of all cyberattacks (millions) in the world are committed against banks and financial institutions. Cybercrime is now generating more revenue than the global drug trade. There is a real hunt for individual hackers and various hacker groups in order to hire them for their insidious plans.
Mercenaries, as in conventional wars, are quite effective in cyber conflict. Most importantly, it is difficult to track their relationship with the customer. "Private traders", without being tied to specific places, easily evade surveillance and harassment. Even after being caught, it is quite difficult to prove their involvement in one or another cybercrime.
On the other hand, “private traders” better correlate real information with virtual information, becoming a kind of analysts. So, in the story of the attack on Bin Laden’s house in Pakistan, the secret operation nearly went down because of one single programmer. Pakistani intelligence services missed an American air raid, while local IT consultant Sohib Athar noted the weird sound of helicopter propellers at 01:00am over Abbottabad and began a live broadcast on Twitter. If the Pakistanis or jihadists were quick, the operation, which had been prepared for several years, would simply have failed. The former head of the CIA, Michael Morell, who was preparing the operation, told this story as an example of the capabilities of information technology.
Attacks on Azerbaijan
Cyber wars also affected our homeland. The Karabakh conflict left the plains and mountains for the Internet. Along with provocative attacks of individual hackers, local wars also took place.
According to experts, Armenia and Azerbaijan have already had several conflicts in cyberspace. In 2000, 2012, 2016, hackers on both sides hacked entire segments of the network without causing serious damage. Attacks primarily concerned the websites of news agencies. In most cases, information about the cyber conflicts remains classified due to the ongoing conflict between the both countries. However, some experts shared some details if their identities remain confidential. For example, it is known that Armenian IPs have long been blocked in Azerbaijan, and the bulk of cyberattacks against Azerbaijan is carried out from outside the region. In parallel, Azerbaijani IT specialists are seeking out and eliminating vulnerabilities in national cyberspace.
In any case, the last decade has shown that the comprehensive development of any country is impossible without the organisation of security and combat-ready defense. With the unpredictable development of information technologies, the principle of being alert in all situations becomes fundamental in the broad sense of the word.