GQ (Australia) - - WHAT IF -

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.”

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