Murray Brewster / Canadian Press – 2008-08-19 22:39:32
OTTAWA (August 18, 2008) — As Russian troops stormed into Georgia this month, they had some novel help from cyber-savvy countrymen who unleashed an assault of their own — hacking into government and commercial websites.
NATO calls it iWar, and it has the potential to disrupt lives and wreck economies, particularly in Internet-dependent countries like Canada.
The Russian hackers were spectacularly successful to the point that some experts are now predicting that Internet-based attacks could be just as innovative to warfare as the advent of gunpowder.
“It’s very easy to cause a lot of trouble using three guys and a laptop,” said James Appathurai, a spokesman for NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
NATO foreign ministers, including Canada’s David Emerson, meet in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the fighting in Georgia and possible punishment for Moscow, which claims to have begun a withdrawal.
Russia denies its military was behind last week’s three-stage cyber attacks, claiming that “patriotic” civilian hackers were simply joining the fray unprompted in taking down Georgian websites.
The denial of service attacks on Georgian government Web sites started just before Russian troops started to move Aug. 8 and were quickly followed much bigger assaults on commercial institutions, including media outlets, using zombie servers. The final stage involved hacking into government Web sites, tampering with them and redirecting traffic to other some times nefarious sites.
An expert in information warfare says it’s the first time cyber attacks have been sewn so tightly into a military campaign and used with such overwhelming effect.
“The question that remains is: was it planned or was it something that happened by coincidence — or was it a bit of both?” asked Rafal Rohozinski, of the Information Warfare Monitor, a Canadian group that studies iWars.
The patriotic hacker explanation is the most troubling because it represents a “riot in cyberspace” — a kind of chaos governments and militaries would have a tough time anticipating, said Rohozinski.
But the timing of the cyber assaults makes him suspicious.
That the Russians would not admit it was part of their Georgian battle plan isn’t surprising because attacks across cyberspace travel through servers in a number of countries, exposing Moscow to possible retaliation, principally from NATO, Rohozinski said.
Chris Corrigan, a retired colonel Canadian tank commander, said Western militaries have faced this kind of threat since the days of radar jamming.
“What makes this different is that the targets are no longer strictly military communications infrastructure and we’re now talking about destroying civilian (Internet) sites,” said Corrigan, who watched the attack on Georgia while training officers in the nearby Ukraine.
Rohozinski describes it as a rapidly evolving field, where even definitions are being refined.
Cyber war refers specifically to assaults on virtual military targets and communications, while iWar is the 21st Century equivalent to the concept of total war, where nothing is off-limits.
The flattening of heavy industries was a key pillar of the Allied strategy to defeat Germany and Japan during the Second World War.
The same kind of economic devastation may no longer require waves of heavy bombers. It might be wrought through targeted virtual attacks on a country’s financial system, media and government institutions.
Such attacks are cheap and relatively easy to mount.
Developed nations, especially Canada, face the greatest risk because so much business is conducted and information exchanged online, said Appathurai.
Corrigan, who was the Canadian Forces point man on the Y2K glitch, said militaries and businesses have a lot of “built-in redundancy” to withstand attacks, but added the threat is real and geography cannot isolate a nation the way it did in past wars.
Western commanders, who once trained almost exclusively to turn back tanks, troops and bombers, have added repelling Internet assaults to their training regimes.
NATO recently created its own real-world crisis response team to handle calamities in the virtual world.
And not a moment too soon.
Estonia and Lithuania — two former Soviet republics — suffered through repeated hacker attacks, which may or may not have been state-sponsored. The latest blitz took place just a few weeks ago and shut down the Lithuanian tax registry office.
The centrepiece of the North Atlantic Alliance is the common defence clause of the NATO charter — known as Article 5.
It stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack on all members and alliance countries are obligated to respond.
Does that extend to cyber attacks?
Appathurai conceded that Article 5 is “vaguely worded” and future interpretations could encompass Internet warfare.
© The Canadian Press, 2008
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