After months of looming terror of a potential third world war, the U.S. and Russia are now on the brink of an open cyber war. While it can be speculated that such a war would involve targeting and disrupting important digitized infrastructural components of the enemy, the world is yet to experience an open cyber war of this magnitude. So what exactly can be expected?
President Obama warned earlier this week that the U.S. would be retaliating against Russia after reports confirmed that they were actively involved in hacking the Democratic emails during the election. It was concluded by intelligence officials that the hacking was a clear attempt to influence the results of the election in favor of President-elect Donald Trump.
The president, however, spoke on Friday about how the U.S. is more vulnerable to cyber attacks compared to Russia.
“Our economy is more digitized, it’s more vulnerable, partly because we’re a wealthier nation, and we’re more wired than other nations.”
And experts seem to agree with the president. Austin Berglas, a former FBI agent turned cyber-security consultant at K2 Intelligence, has confirmed the president’s remark, saying that the fact that the United States is a much more digitized society than Russia means that “the potential cause damage to critical infrastructure is greater” in the U.S.
“A three-pronged attack against our power grid, transportation, and financial systems would be devastating and potentially viewed as a terrorist attack against the United States.”
Some experts, however, disagree with President Obama, pointing out that even though the United States is much more dependent on the internet, Russia is the weaker and more unstable country, something that could be advantageous to the U.S. Michael Hayden, former CIA director, points out how the U.S. could provide Russian citizens with software that can make it easier for them to speak against their government. Kenneth Geers, of NATO’s Cyber Center, agrees.
“Dictators may win cyber battles, but they will lose cyber wars.”
The fact remains that there are no clear precedents on how the U.S. should respond to a cyber attack. If such an attack were to result in any form of physical damage, leading to the destruction of an infrastructure or harm to American citizens, there would be a clear path to follow. But in situations of cyber attacks that don’t involve force, the democratic email hacks for instance, the U.S. remains unclear as on how to respond. By responding without proper analysis of the situation, the U.S. could risk the situation escalating to undesired levels.
Jason Healey, a Columbia University scholar, calls the election hacking one of the most serious kinds of conflict we’ve ever come across. And he doesn’t think the U.S.’s diplomatic tactics or sanctions against Russia are doing it any help.
“It’s clear Putin does not care about sanctions or other diplomatic means we might use to get him to back down.”
The U.S. already maintains a strict sanction against Russia, and if it were to seek additional sanctions, Laura Galante, director of global Intelligence for FireEye, believes that Russia could start targeting American businesses as well. She believes that the Russians could hack “U.S. businesses and executives for reputation damage,” comparing the ramifications to the damages done to the Democratic Party during the election.
Some experts such as former NSA Computer Scientist, Dave Aitel, recommend that the only way to get the Russians to back down would be for the U.S. to show an aggressive response.
“Let’s turn off all the lights in Moscow, then turn them back on five minutes later. And do that every day at a certain hour. It’s scary with no collateral damage.”
Others have suggested a more quieter response — the U.S. target the hackers and shuts down their operation.
Either way, Frank Cilluffo of George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security believes that the U.S. needs to respond right away as not doing show may show a sign a weakness to the adversary.
“From a credibility perspective, we absolutely have no choice but to respond. Everyone is watching.”
[Feature Image by Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool/AP Images]