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.
In 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 these types of incidents could rapidly escalate out of control.
What does cyberwarfare look like?
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.
One worst-case cyberattack scenario in the US sees attackers combining outright destructive attacks focused on critical US infrastructure with data manipulation on a massive scale.
Thankfully, there are few examples of real-world cyberwarfare, at least for now.
Nearly every system we use is underpinned in some way by computers, which means almost every aspect of our lives could be vulnerable to cyberwarfare at some point, and some experts warn it’s a case of when, not if.
Why are governments investing in cyberwarfare right now?
Governments are becoming aware that modern societies are heavily reliant on computer systems to run everything, from financial services to transport networks. Using hackers armed with viruses or other tools to shut down those systems could be just as effective and damaging as traditional military campaigns using troops armed with guns and missiles.
Unlike traditional military attacks, a cyberattack can be launched instantaneously from any distance, with little obvious evidence of any build-up, unlike a traditional military operation. Such attacks would be extremely hard to trace back with any certainty to its perpetrators, making retaliation harder.
As a result, governments and intelligence agencies worry that digital attacks against vital infrastructure – like banking systems or power grids – will give attackers a way of bypassing a country’s traditional defences. This is the reason why governments are racing to improve their computer security.
However, they also see the opportunities that cyberwarfare can offer, which is a new way to exert influence on rival states without having to put soldiers at risk. The fear of being vulnerable to the cyberweapons of their rivals coupled with a desire to harness these tools to bolster their own standing in the world is leading many countries into a cyber arms race.
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