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Leon County Democrat Group

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Robert Yates
Robert Yates

Battle Nations Hack

Over the last couple of years, countries competing for either economic or military power have either instigated or fallen victim to economic espionage. As wars become unappealing, these governments have turned to digital espionage, making cyberspace the new field of battle for nations around the world. Digital espionage is a form of hacking conducted for either political or economic reasons, such as stealing secret information to engineer new technologies based on the stolen information or strictly for political reasons. As this trend catches on, the number of economic espionage incidents is expected to increase in the future. Increased Internet penetration to all parts of the world will also promote this trend.

Battle Nations Hack

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Facing the threat of world war is a horrible idea, but when you experience it in a safe environment of Conflict of Nations WW3, you can have a lot of fun and excitement. Your goal is to conquer nations, forge alliances, gather resources, and strengthen your country to become the dominant power on the planet.

As the hack-a-thon progressed, the hackers lost Wi-Fi connectivity because of the heavy pressure the event put on the network. This led to frustration across the event. Within a few hours the organizers brought Ethernet cables and hooked all the groups up to Internet. The venue quickly took the shape of a tropical forest floor littered with vines.

As the evening drew near, the organizers provided air mattresses for those looking to take a little break. However, most hackers stuck it out through the night to come up with brilliant hacks that were displayed the next morning in the judging session. The judging period was immediately followed up with the closing ceremony at the Kresge Auditorium where the winning hacks were announced.

Cyberwarfare refers to the use of digital attacks -- like computer viruses and hacking -- by one country to disrupt the vital computer systems of another, with the aim of creating damage, death and destruction. Future wars will see hackers using computer code to attack an enemy's infrastructure, fighting alongside troops using conventional weapons like guns and missiles.

A shadowy world that is still filled with spies, hackers and top secret digital weapons projects, cyberwarfare is an increasingly common -- and dangerous -- feature of international conflicts. But right now the combination of an ongoing cyberwarfare arms race and a lack of clear rules governing online conflict means there is a real risk that incidents could rapidly escalate out of control.

Just like normal warfare which can range from limited skirmishes to full-on battles, the impact of cyberwarfare will vary by target and severity. In many cases the computer systems are not the final target -- they are being targeted because of their role in managing real-world infrastructure like airports or power grids. Knock out the computers and you can shut down the airport or the power station as a result.

There are plenty of grim cyberwarfare scenarios available. Perhaps attackers start with the banks: one day your bank balance drops to zero and then suddenly leaps up, showing you've got millions in your account. Then stock prices start going crazy as hackers alter data flowing into the stock exchange. The next day the trains aren't running because the signalling stops working, and you can't drive anywhere because the traffic lights are all stuck on red, and the shops in big cities start running out of food. Pretty soon a country could be reduced to gridlock and chaos, even without the doomsday scenarios of hackers disabling power stations or opening dams.

Governments are increasingly aware that modern societies are so reliant on computer systems to run everything from financial services to transport networks that using hackers armed with viruses or other tools to shut down those systems could be just as effective and damaging as traditional military campaign using troops armed with guns and missiles.

Attacks by individual hackers, or even groups of hackers, would not usually be considered to be cyberwarfare, unless they are being aided and directed by a state. Still, in the murky world of cyberwarfare there are plenty of blurred lines: states providing support to hackers in order to create plausible deniability for their own actions is, however, a dangerously common trend.

One example: cyber crooks who crash a bank's computer systems while trying to steal money would not be considered to be perpetrating an act of cyberwarfare, even if they come from a rival nation. But state-backed hackers doing the same thing to destabilise a rival state's economy might well be considered so.

The weapons used are important, too -- cyberwar refers to digital attacks on computer systems: firing a missile at a data center would not be considered cyberwarfare, even if the data center contained government records. And using hackers to spy or even to steal data would not in itself be considered an act of cyberwarfare, and would instead come under the heading cyber espionage, something which is done by nearly all governments.

For sure there are many grey areas here (cyberwarfare is basically one big grey area anyway), but calling every hack an act of cyberwar is at best unhelpful and at its worst is scaremongering that could lead to dangerous escalation.

It follows then that, if a country were hit by a cyberattack of significant scale, the government is within its rights to strike back using the force of their standard military arsenal: to respond to hacking with missile strikes perhaps.

The second version of the manual, know as Tallinn 2.0, looks at the legal status of the various types of hacking and other digital attacks that occur on a daily basis during peacetime and looks at when a digital attack becomes a a violation of international law in cyberspace.

Pretty much every single nation with the money and the skills is investing in cyberwarfare and cyberdefence capabilities. According to US intelligence chiefs, more than 30 countries are developing offensive cyber attack capabilities, although most of these government hacking programmes are shrouded in secrecy. This has lead to concerns that a secret cyber arms race has already begun.

Imaging the smartest hackers with the biggest budgets aiming to break the biggest systems they can; that's what the high end of cyber weapons can look like -- projects involving teams of developers and millions of dollars. But there are very, very few of these. In general the tools of cyberwarfare can vary from the incredibly sophisticated to the utterly basic. It depends on the effect the attacker is trying to create.

Many are part of the standard hacker toolkit, and a series of different tools could be used in concert as part of a cyberattack. For example, a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack was at the core of the attacks on Estonia in 2007.

Other standard hacker techniques are likely to form part of a cyberattack; phishing emails to trick users into handing over passwords or other data which can allow attackers further access to networks, for example. Malware and viruses could form part of an attack like the Shamoon virus, which wiped the hard drives of 30,000 PCs at Saudi Aramco in 2012.

Zero-day vulnerabilities are bugs or flaws in code that can give attackers access to or control over systems, but which have not yet been discovered and fixed by software companies. These flaws are particularly prized because there will likely be no way to stop hackers exploiting them. There is a thriving trade in zero-day exploits that allow hackers to sidestep security: very handy for nations looking to build unstoppable cyber weapons. It is believed that many nations have stock piles of zero day exploits to use for either cyber espionage or as part of elaborate cyber weapons. Zero day exploits formed a key part of the Stuxnet cyberweapon (see below).

One good example of this is shown by the WannaCry ransomware attack, which caused chaos in May 2017. The ransomware proved so virulent because it was supercharged with a zero-day vulnerability that had been stockpiled by the NSA, presumably to use in cyber espionage. But the tool was somehow acquired by the Shadow Brokers hacking group (quite how is extremely unclear) which then leaked it online. Once this happened other ransomware writers incorporated it into their software, making it vastly more powerful.

There is a definite risk that we are at the early stages of a cyberwar arms race: as countries realise that having a cyberwarfare strategy is necessary they will increase spending and start to stockpile weapons, just like any other arms race. That means there could be more nations stockpiling zero-day attacks, which means more holes in software not being patched, which makes us all less secure. And countries with stockpiles of cyber weapons may mean cyber conflicts are able to escalate quicker. One of the big problems is that these programmes tend to be developed in secret with very little oversight and accountability and with mirky rules of engagement.

When the government of the eastern European state of Estonia announced plans to move a Soviet war memorial, it found itself under a furious digital bombardment that knocked banks and government services offline (the attack is generally considered to have been Russian hackers; Russian authorities denied any knowledge). However, the DDoS attacks on Estonia did not create physical damage and, while a significant event, were not considered to have risen to the level of actual cyberwarfare.


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