How close is World War 3.0?

Examining the reality of cyber war in wake of Estonian attacks

Among the industries that could be targets for future cyber attacks are not only ISPs and banks but also oil and electric companies.

"When you think about the citizens of many countries that may disappear beneath the ocean from global warming within 50 years, it's fairly easy to imagine a small, disaffected group [launching cyber attacks] because they're not being heard otherwise," says Eugene Spafford, executive director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security at Purdue University. "We have seen various groups because of racial or religious extreme ideologies...circulating literature about bringing down utility grids."

Was it Cyber war?

Despite the initial headlines, most security experts say the Estonian incident wasn't all-out cyber warfare because it doesn't appear to have been sponsored by the Russian government.

"I would call it more of a political statement," Witt says.

Spafford says true cyber warfare would be undertaken by one nation to bend another to its political will, and network attacks would likely be a companion to other physical attacks.

"The activity that was carried out in Estonia was malicious and criminal," Spafford says. "If you look at some of the political demonstrations held in countries around the world, where traffic is brought to a standstill and there are work stoppages and banks are shut down as a matter of political statement, you wouldn't call that warfare."

Charles Kaplan, chief technology strategist at Mazu Networks, says the Estonian attacks appear to have been conducted by Russian citizens but weren't orchestrated by the Russian government.

"If it really was a government-caused event, we would have seen something more damaging," Kaplan says. "This was a pure demonstration of brute force, and it did have some economic impact. If somebody really wanted to take these guys down, the damage would have been greater than it was."

There are only two other known network attacks that were as devastating as the Estonian incident and have been called cyber warfare. One, dubbed Titan Rain by the U.S. government, took place in 2003 and involved Chinese military attacks on networks run by Lockheed Martin, Sandia National Laboratories, Redstone Arsenal and NASA. The other incident, which the U.S. government refers to as Moonlight Maze, occurred in 1999 and involved Russian attacks on classified military information.

Whether it was cyber war or hactivism, the Estonian incident shows the devastation that a politically motivated network attack can have on government and commercial networks.

Security experts agree that it should be an eye-opener for CIOs, who have been focused on profit-oriented attacks and should consider the threat of politically motivated ones, too.

Spafford calls the threat of political or ideological attacks against U.S. corporate networks significant. He points out that many early viruses and Web defacements were political statements.

"There are many organizations that may be targets for ideological groups because they do business somewhere in the world that may be unpopular," Spafford says. "If you're part of the banking or power industries, you may be a target for purposes of harm to the overall economy."

Spafford estimates that there are thousands of politically motivated attacks across the Internet each year. "Many of them aren't that coordinated or don't have as big of an impact as in Estonia," he adds.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Carolyn Duffy Marsan

Network World
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?