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Why are governments ignoring the virtual cold war?

Lucy Gardner

Organised cybercrime is one of the fastest-moving, least visible threats in modern society. It is a threat made only worse by governments, corporations and individuals ignoring it. Cybercriminals are all over the world, anyone from teenagers coding in their bedrooms to mass acts of cyberwar organised by hostile states. 

While individuals can create havoc behind our screens, such as the 2015 TalkTalk attack, it's the state-sponsored cyber-terrorism that governments must deal with first. Every computer, every phone, every network is at risk. Even your printer needs protecting. Every day, whether you're opening your emails, browsing the internet, or downloading files, you are putting yourself in the firing line. 

While not every attack is an act of war perpetrated by a state, a dangerous trend is emerging where nations such as Russia, North Korea, Iran and China are digitally invading our screens and, by extension, our homes. It's much easier to wage war from behind a laptop than behind a machine gun. 

Russia's acts of physical violence have been the focus of the international press for years. The West rarely hears about its cyber-violence - which dates back almost to Putin's presidency - and can be just as brutal. In 2016, for example, the hacking group calling themselves Sandworm launched one of the most destructive malware attacks in computing history. 

The group launched a virus known as NotPetya on the Ukrainian power grid, not only taking down the Chornobyl radiation monitoring system but corrupting data from multinational corporations such as FedEx and Maersk. According to a White House assessment, the attack caused over $10bn of damage. Sandworm was later linked to the Russian government, now more commonly known as Unit 74455 of the Russian foreign military intelligence agency called The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Knowing the GRU is the perpetrator makes attacks much more sinister. Rather than bounty-hunting hackers, malware such as NotPetya and WhisperGate seem more like acts of warfare, state-sanctioned attacks designed to expose weaknesses. 

Russia alone has been responsible for more than just 74455's aggression – another likely GRU cyberunit referred to as Fancy Bear by cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, was assigned a different task, aiming to destabilise Western democracies for Russian subversion. 

Fancy Bear has been responsible for data theft from some of the main bastions of democratic power, such as Dmitri Badin's attack on the Deutsche Bundestag in 2015, where over 16GB of sensitive data were stolen. This was not an isolated incident – open-source intelligence organisations such as Bellingcat and cybersecurity firms and advisors, including Mandiant, have reported or predicted cyberattacks on at least one US election, likely perpetrated primarily by Fancy Bear or other GRU units. The GRU's efforts are thought to include the attack that changed everything for Trump's election, the Clinton email theft. The information was leaked to Julian Assange's Wikileaks service and reported in American media, which, if proven to be linked to the Russian intelligence service, would be a direct subversion of American democracy. 

The impact of cyberviolence and cyberwarfare is undeniable. Democracy is being undermined, files stolen, and companies shut down. Those who think they're safe and ignore the problem are most at risk – the hackers are hiding everywhere, not just in your email inbox, and they are ruthless. 

So why do governments continue to ignore the threat of state-organised hacking? 

Probably the least disturbing answer would be the nature of cyberwarfare itself – computers are fast and powerful, and those who study them are constantly finding new uses and, by extension, new misuses for them. By contrast, the process of making and debating new laws and regulations is slow and cannot keep up with constant technological change. 

Slightly more alarming would be the naivety of modern governments: many politicians and legislators hope the problem will resolve itself, considering politicised issues such as conventional military issues more critical because of the advantage of being visible and, therefore, directing voters' attention to 'electable' issues. 

However, a likely and highly disturbing explanation for ignoring the impending cyber threat is that governments may already have been too subverted to resist the onslaught of state-organised cyberwarfare. States are aware of cyberwarfare actively being waged on the democratic process, economic function and military forces but are choosing to ignore the issue. 

The Mueller report published in 2018 found that calculated cyber attacks were carried out to subvert the 2016 presidential election, favouring Donald Trump. These were organised, at least in part, by the Russian government. However, the report failed to conclude criminal behaviour, and there is considerable evidence outlined by advisors such as Mandiant that the same happened in the 2020 election and is likely to have occurred in the 2022 midterms. The recurrence of the same threat in the very foundation of a democracy's function surely would be enough to raise red flags in the circles of government. Yet still, the danger is overlooked. 

Governments worldwide, but especially in the West, must come out of hiding and face the threat. This is war, even if no bombs are falling. Governments must first build defences, build secure firewalls and encourage their use, ensuring sloppy protection is outlawed and, most importantly, protecting themselves. The most dangerous cybercrimes in modern history have been against governments, and successful attacks put all of us at risk. 

Next, we must all be prepared for the oncoming threat – improving computer science and cybersecurity education in schools, educating older generations on cybersecurity and computer skills, and subsidising corporate training courses to protect ourselves better. Finally, an international offensive must be taken, cooperating to sanction hostile nations waging war in the cyber-sphere, and legislating to make cyberspace safer for everyone. 

Right now, nobody's private life is safe. Nobody's job is secure. Governments are weak and exposed. So why ignore the threat any longer? Everyone's files and digital footprints will be safe only when they take action. 

Image: Shutterstock/Slate Magazine

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