Cyberwarfare is real. Governments are pouring billions into making sure they can fight battles on the internet, and you might just get caught in the crossfire. Here’s what you need to know.
- What it is:Cyberwarfare is the use of digital attacks to damage the networks or computer systems in another nation state.
- What it does:State-backed hackers aim to disrupt civilian and military services and potentially create real-world effects, like shutting down power grids.
- Why it matters:Most developed economies are now entirely reliant on web-based services: undermining confidence in these systems and networks could do serious damage.
- Who it affects:Potentially anyone who relies on digital infrastructure in their lives, regardless of location.
- When is this happening:There have already been a few incidents that could be labelled as cyberwarfare, more will follow.
- Where is this happening:Electronic attacks have taken place in Ukraine, Iran and eastern Europe: more may have taken place but secrecy makes it hard to be sure.
- Who is making it happen:Many governments are building a cyberwarfare capability: among the most advanced countries are the US, Russia, China, Iran and South Korea.
- How to get it:Find yourself in conflict with a major power, or annoy a dictator.
What is cyberwar?
At its heart, cyberwarfare involves digital attacks on the networks, systems and data of another state, with the aim of creating significant disruption or destruction. That might involve destroying, altering or stealing data, or making it impossible to access online services, whether they are used by the military and broader society. These digital attacks may also be designed to cause physical damage in the real world – such as hacking into a dam’s control systems to opening its floodgates.
Such attacks can form part of a more traditional military campaign or be used as a standalone attack.
A wider definition of cyberwarfare could also include some elements of what is also known as information warfare — including online propaganda and disinformation, such as the use of ‘troll armies’ to promote a certain view of the world across social media.
There is no settled legal definition of what cyberwarfare is and there are no laws that specifically refer to it. That doesn’t mean the concept isn’t covered by international law, or that it is considered trivial. Among western states there is a general consensus that an online attack on a state can – if it is severe enough — be the equivalent of an armed physical attack.
NATO has, for example, updated its rules of engagement so that an electronic attack on one of its members could be considered an attack on all of them – triggering its collective defence clause. Increasingly it is seen as another potential battlefield alongside land, sea, air and space.
But cyberwar remains a shifting concept, one that describes a shadowy world — the domain of spies, top secret military projects and hackers often working at arms-length from their own governments.