Whether or not the Russians hacked into the records of the Democratic Party and skewed the US presidential election – generally accepted to be the case – it was (unless you happen to be Mrs Clinton) a fairly harmless exercise in the greater scheme of things. And for all the buffoonery, Donald Trump might fairly question why his predecessor failed to take action on the issue when he first became aware of what the Russians were up to.
Cyber crime has been with us for a long time, and stories of widespread hacking of internet accounts is nothing new. But perhaps what most of us don’t realise is the devastation that cyberwarfare could wreak on humanity without a shot being fired or an airstrike being unleashed.
Because daily life is becoming more dependent on computers, so are we becoming more at risk of the destruction that a malicious cyber attack could inflict. Cyberwar has the potential to cripple an enemy and lay waste to an entire nation without ever going into battle; it could bring an enemy to its knees with less bloodshed and in less time than the most concentrated terrorist attack.
In a new book on cyber warfare, ‘The Perfect Weapon’, American journalist David Sanger writes about the security nightmare that cyber attacks could bring. He tells us that countries like Russia and China have implanted malicious software in the American electrical grid, nuclear power plants and water systems (just as the Americans in turn have done to their perceived foes).
In one chilling paragraph, he describes the likely outcome of a cyber attack: “Suddenly, the electricity goes out at the office, and then all over the city. Cellphone networks and the internet have gone black; along with subways and trains. The roads are jammed because traffic lights aren’t working. Credit cards are now just worthless bits of plastic, and ATMs are nothing but hunks of metal. Gas stations can’t pump gas. Banks have lost records of depositors’ accounts. Dam floodgates mysteriously open, water and sewage treatment plants stop working. People can’t contact loved ones. Phone systems are down, 911 is useless. Looters roam the streets. Food and water soon run out in the cities. And that’s just the first week.”
Cyber crime has been with us for years, as Sanger points out, but the real danger is that rogue states like North Korea and Iran are just as expert in the cyber arts as are the most-developed of the world’s nations.
In 2014, North Korea hacked into the computer system of Colombia Pictures, accessing and releasing thousands of confidential company documents, and forcing the company to rewrite the film ‘The Interview’.
When hackers broke into the system of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the perpetrators gave instructions to transfer $1 billion from the account of the Central Bank of Bangladesh to two accounts, one in Sri Lanka, the other in the Philippines.
The first five instructions went smoothly, and $20 million was transferred to the Shalika Foundation, a Sri Lanka-based private limited company. But then the hacker became careless, misspelling the word ‘Foundation’ in the instruction, spelling it as ‘Fundation’. The error raised the suspicion of the system at Deutsche Bank, which raised the alarm and ordered a halt on the transaction.
The scam was later traced back to North Korea, where, presumably, the negligent hacker was gently reprimanded and, no doubt, sent back to the classroom to brush up his spelling skills.