WARS WERE FOUGHT ONLINE?
On August 7, 2008, Russian tanks advanced into South Ossetia in the former soviet republic of Georgia. Georgian forces responded with artillery fire, and the events were seen as the flashpoint for the Russo-georgian conflict. But what Georgian leaders didn’t know is that the offensive had started more than two weeks earlier. That July, hackers mobilised compromised computers, which were then used to overload Georgian websites. As Russian forces moved into Georgian territory, government websites went offline, before hackers targeted the nation’s internet servers. Soon, Georgian military leaders couldn’t talk to their troops. It was the first time a cyber attack coincided with military action. Professor Jai Galliott is a lecturer at the Australian Centre for Cyber Security and says cyberwarfare poses a major risk to countries, including Australia. “We already have a cyber force, and cyber is already a large part of the picture when it comes to our defences,” he says. “Countries now turn to cyber as a first or second option, rather than sending in troops.” Cyberwarfare may seem like a harmless alternative to military action. But armed conflicts occur on a battlefield, between opposing forces. A cyber conflict would have no ‘frontline’, meaning ordinary citizens could be at higher risk of attack. “Everything from the water system to the sewer system and traffic lights – it’s all so digitised and interconnected,” he says. “In many ways the damage done by a cyber attack could be worse than the damage done by troops on the ground.” They can also be harder to anticipate. In late 2015, a control centre in Western Ukraine was overtaken by hackers, who switched off power at around 60 substations for several hours. The attack left 230,000 residents without light or heating during winter. In April, a hacker targeted a tornado alarm system in Dallas, triggering all 156 of the city’s sirens for more than an hour. “That’s a great example of critical infrastructure being hacked with devastating consequences,” says professor Galliott, adding that the incident could erode confidence in such a critical warning system. Not to mention the fact that panicked locals flooded 911 lines – delaying those with real, potentially life-threatening emergencies. While cyberwarfare is unlikely to make traditional military power entirely obsolete – especially in developing countries – the two may increasingly work together. “More often than not, war doesn’t break out overnight – it’s a matter of escalations,” he says. “Cyber will play an increasing role in those early steps and we’re already seeing that today.” In March, The New York Times reported that a recent spate of failed North Korean missile launches may have been the work of US cyber attacks – a strategy accelerated during the Obama administration, which saw it as more viable than attempting to shoot down airborne missiles. But with everything from hospitals to financial institutions under threat, countries have no choice but to strengthen their cyber forces. “It’s a massive effort to go through these systems one by one and find out how to secure them,” says professor Galliott. “But the potential there is great, and I think all countries, including Australia, are struggling to come to grips with it.”