A definition of cyber warfare is hard to find, as the term includes a variety of topics. From digitally supported military operations to political hacktivism, there’s a lot to cover. So what is cyber warfare, who’s behind it, and how is it carried out?
What is cyber warfare?
Cyber warfare covers many different tools and techniques. Hacking, activism, espionage, cybercrime, and terrorism are just a few. It includes everything from government-backed operations to lone-wolf attackers.
Another thing that makes cyber warfare hard to define is the variety of motivations and actors behind each case. The aim is usually either to disrupt and sabotage, or to steal confidential information, but attacks can be carried out for any number of reasons.
Cyber espionage in war
While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, cyber espionage and cyber warfare are not the same. Espionage focuses on covert information gathering while warfare can include disruption or destruction.
Cyber espionage can also occur between corporations and against private citizens. The term cyber warfare usually refers to actions launched by or against military groups, governments, and political factions.
The two are closely linked, however. Cyber spies are widely used by governments around the world, with one country in particular facing repeated accusations. China has been accused of a long list of cyber espionage incidents, but it can be difficult to find a direct trail leading back to their government.
Motivations: the purpose of cyber warfare
Cyber warfare is carried out for many different reasons and between a variety of groups. Even during peacetime, we’ve seen concerted online efforts by Russia, China, and others to interfere with the democratic processes of the US and other allies. There are three main categories that we can use to classify this form of warfare.
Sabotage and terrorism
The intent of many cyber warfare actions is to sabotage and cause indiscriminate damage. Cyber terrorism is a growing problem and is often carried out by lone-wolf operatives or small international terrorist factions. From taking a site offline with a DDoS attack to defacing webpages with political messages, cyber terrorists launch multiple operations every year. With infrastructure – including national power grids – increasingly dependent on the internet, cyber sabotage can cause real damage.
Hand-in-glove with warfare throughout history, spying and intelligence gathering has always been a fixture of international conflict. While cyber espionage also occurs between corporations, with competitors vying for patents and sensitive information, it’s an essential strategy for governments engaging in covert warfare. The Chinese intelligence services are regularly named as the culprits in such operations, although they consistently deny the accusations.
Civilian activism (Hacktivism)
The growing trend of hacktivism has seen civilian cyber activists take on governments and authorities around the world.
Groups like Anonymous have claimed responsibility for assaults on government agencies in the US, while others have supported protest movements under authoritarian regimes. In 2022, Anonymous began a targeted cyber campaign against Russia, after it invaded Ukraine, in an attempt to disrupt government systems and combat Russian propaganda.
Cyber warfare in action
While at one time cyber warfare was largely theoretical, it’s now a very real part of modern military strategy.
For an example of this, we need look no further than Russia’s war in Ukraine. Even before Russian troops swarmed across the border, Ukraine was under near continuous assault from hackers. Many observers in Ukraine and beyond believe that these cyberattacks originated from Russia, and may be sanctioned and supported by The Kremlin.
In the months leading up to the outbreak of war, Ukrainian websites were attacked and altered to display threatening messages about the coming invasion. New forms of malware flooded the country, targeting firewalls and in some cases wiping data indiscriminately. These incidents appear to be part of a wider cyber warfare campaign by Russia, against Ukraine and its government.
After the invasion began, the hacking collective Anonymous declared a cyber war against Russia, and launched a huge barrage of attacks. Russian state media was targeted in particular, as it plays an essential part in The Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus.
Cyber sabotage in action
Cyber warfare could have potentially catastrophic impact like major power outages. Electrical grids are vulnerable to hacking, and in the US, government officials have raised concerns around this issue.
In 2009, reports suggested that both Russian and Chinese operatives had managed to access the digital systems of the US power grid. Ten years later, Russia accused American agents of launching a similar attack against their own infrastructure.
While both occasions caused little disruption, a similar attack was enacted in Türkiye by Iranian hackers. They managed to knock out the power grid for around twelve hours, affecting more than 40 million people.
Journalism and the media
In recent years, the number of cyber attacks against journalists and media organisations has increased. While some can be traced back to state-funded attackers, others have been staged by rogue elements acting apparently on their own initiative.
In 2013, a faction in Syria loyal to the ruling party attacked social media and news giants including Twitter and The New York Times due to their perceived support for rebel groups in the country.
In the US, the LulzSec hacker collective targeted major news outlets like Fox News and PBS, defacing their websites and altering page content. The same group went on to attack government servers, even managing to take the FBI’s main website offline.
Cyber warfare and free speech
The tools of cyber warfare can help both sides in the battle for free speech. In countries like China and Russia, activists and journalists are regular victims of politically motivated hacking and data leaks.
China’s Ministry of State Security has been accused of cyber attacks against organisations involved in the recent Hong Kong protest movement, among many others.
In contrast, cyber attacks can also be used to promote and protect free speech. When Egyptian authorities tried to take the country offline during protests, engineers from Google and Twitter worked to bypass the restrictions. In 2008, the Project Chanology operation in the US saw hackers attacking The Church of Scientology in protest for their attempts to censor the speech of its members.
And in 2022, hackers from the Anonymous collective began targeting Russian state media, in an attempt to disrupt The Kremlin’s grip on the free flow of information. There have been unverified reports of hacked websites and TV stations sharing unrestricted news about Russia’s war in Ukraine — news that Russian authorities would like to suppress.
The future of cyber warfare
Governments, corporations, and the public need to understand this emerging landscape.
From the mass cyberattacks of 2008’s Russian-Georgian war to the cyber onslaught faced by Ukraine today, this is the new battleground for both civil and international conflicts.
Cyber warfare will play a crucial role in political events to come. Here are three possible developments that we’ll see in the near future:
- Just as drones and long-distance missiles are removing the need for boots-on-the-ground combat, cyber warfare could go further still, becoming the primary theatre of war for global superpowers.
- Terrorist cells may focus their efforts on targeting civilian infrastructure and other high-risk networks: they would be even harder to detect, and could launch attacks anywhere in the world.
- Hacktivism might empower protest movements and allow citizens to hold large governmental authorities to account, loosening the stranglehold that regimes like North Korea and Russia have on the flow of information.