How computer hacking is becoming Russia’s weapon of choice

Hacking activities include the penetration of national infrastructure systems, and money markets, and the stealing of state secrets and intellectual property. All of these destabilizing attacks can be considered as preparation for any future conflict.

According to the British defense secretary Michael Fallon: “Russia is carrying out a sustained campaign of cyberattacks targeting democracy and critical infrastructure in the West.”

Russia, or its proxy cyber warriors, have been accused of a number of high-profile attacks, all of which can be regarded as attempts to undermine democracy by fueling doubt or creating distrust through misinformation or “false reporting.” In military parlance, this activity is referred to as “psychological operations”.

Online targets
Recent alleged targets include Estonia in 2007, a French TV station in April 2015, Germany’s lower house of parliament in June 2015, and various government institutions in Bulgaria in October 2016. That country’s president described the attacks as the “heaviest” and most “intense” to be conducted in south-eastern Europe. Then came 2016, and the accusations that Russia stole and leaked data from the Democratic Party.

Russia has denied any involvement in any of this cyber activity and conclusive proof is difficult to obtain. After all, the Russia will be conducting its information warfare campaign through proxy cyber groups who themselves will be using heavily disguised covert internet servers. However, according to U.S. intelligence officials, Russian hackers made repeated attempts during 2016 to stage cyber break-ins into major US institutions, including the White House and the State Department.

Russia’s clear long-term strategy is to use the internet to further its aims in information warfare. It has proved that this form of warfare is more potent than kinetic warfare and that it can reap the benefits quickly and without fear of a coordinated response from the United States or NATO. Its use of criminal cyber rings ensures that it benefits from no (provable) direct links to the Russian government. A further downside is that China, North Korea, and Iran seem to be copying this model and have already been active in attacks against other nation states.

The internet has changed mass communication in countless positive ways. But it is becoming an increasingly dangerous tool for subversive activity. A re-think and a re-boot are looking increasingly necessary.

David Stupples is Professor of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Director of Electronic Warfare Research, City, University of London. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution / No derivative).