Battles and wars were previously fought head-on, on a physical battlefield, but now we are seeing a transition in how and where battles are fought. These battles are now fought in the digital and physical worlds. This way of fighting will become the new normal, especially when developed countries are at the forefront. In this article, we will cover what cyber attacks are, how they happen, and what you can do to protect information. We will also cover information warfare and how information can be used to change public perspective.
More cyber attacks are being announced and everyday sensitive, proprietary, and vulnerable information is at risk. Recently, Microsoft had partial source code pertaining to Bing and Cortana stolen as part of a cyber attack. The White House also just warned about possible plans by the Russian government to target critical American infrastructure and released a best practices fact sheet for institutions and individuals to refer to in order to protect themselves.
Cyber attacks aren’t the only type of digital warfare that people need to be concerned about. Information warfare has profoundly and permanently changed how wars are fought. People are using the internet during almost every waking moment of their lives. Every time they actively access the internet (to check the weather, access Instagram, transfer money, etc.), they are being bombarded by information. Additionally, people are having their information collected whenever they access the internet, including passively by their installed apps collecting data from phones at all times. That information is then distributed to data actors who sell or act on the collected personal information.
Anyone can be a victim of cyber attacks, and they are common as ever now. Personal information, account information, and anything posted online is at risk for a cyber attack. These cyber attacks aim to disable, disrupt, destroy, or control computer systems or to alter, block, delete, manipulate or steal the data held within systems and accounts. Every major company or government in the world has had some sort of cyber attack. Those attacks can result in breaches of information or systems being shut down. Below are some of the most common types:
- Malwareis malicious software, including spyware, ransomware, viruses, and worms. Malware breaches a network through a vulnerability, typically when a user clicks a dangerous link or email attachment that then installs risky software.
- Phishingis a type of social engineering attack often used to steal user data, including login credentials and credit card numbers. It occurs when an attacker, masquerading as a trusted entity, dupes a victim into opening an email, instant message, or text message and providing personal or sensitive information.
- Man-in-the-middle(MitM) attacks, also known as eavesdropping attacks, occur when attackers insert themselves into a two-party transaction. The goal of an attack is to steal personal information, such as login credentials, account details and credit card numbers.
- A denial-of-serviceattack floods systems, servers, or networks with traffic to exhaust resources and bandwidth. As a result, the system is unable to fulfill legitimate requests.
- A Structured Query Language (SQL)injection occurs when an attacker inserts malicious code into a database that uses SQL and forces the server to reveal information it usually would not.
- A zero-day exploitis an unknown exploit that exposes a vulnerability in software or hardware and can create complicated problems well before anyone realizes something is wrong.
- DNS tunnelingis a method of cyber attack that encodes the data of other programs or protocols in DNS queries and responses. DNS tunneling often includes data payloads that can be added to an attacked DNS server and used to control a remote server and applications.
Since cyber attacks are inevitable, people, institutions, and governments must decide how they want to respond to these attacks’ risks. The different risk mitigation strategies for cyber threats are Mitigate, Avoid, Transfer, Accept, and Escalate a Risk. To mitigate risk is to do something to reduce the impact or the probability of a threat. Organizations can avoid risk by choosing different products, adding additional security to their information, can hire additional resources, adopting different technical solutions, or changing project scope. Transferring risk puts the risk on another party, typically by outsourcing that operation to another organization. So, the new organization is responsible for the risks. When organizations decide to accept the risk, they decide that risk is an acceptable risk and will not take any actions to mitigate the risk.
Cyber attacks can threaten someone’s way of life. Still, the risks and chance of attacks decrease dramatically through proper education and preparation. The government, private companies, and nonprofits all share ways to protect yourself, such as Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, FireEye, and “No More Ransom”.
Information has been the maker and breaker of wars, as generals relied heavily on information gathering about opposing forces when making their battle plans. George Washington credits his spies and information gathering as a key reason for defeating the British. It’s no different today on the cyber battlefield. The advent of the internet in the mid-1980s has restructured the landscape of information sharing, availability, gathering, and dissemination. However, just because all this information is out there doesn’t mean that this information is good. The saying that “a lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots” was true when Mark Twain said it and still is today.
Misinformation (Fake news, fabricated images, and clickbait articles) are spread faster and further than researched-backed information. Facebook has been fighting a losing battle with falsified information, and everyone has seen that information on their feed. For example, 49% of adults in the United States shared information online, which they later found was made up. People often don’t even know that they shared information was incorrect until after the fact. Still, by the time they realize the information has already been circulated to their connections. However, in the same survey, 10% of those adults admitted to sharing information online that they knew was false which introduces a new problem of disinformation – the practice of knowingly spreading false information.
False information creates worlds of problems, but just the ability to access information and the promotion of information is another tactic used in information operations or information warfare (aka IW). GAO.gov defines Information Warfare as the use of information-related capabilities during military operations to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own. Propaganda is one example and has been used for centuries to spread information to different groups that may not have access to that information. While propaganda itself has a bad connotation, it can be beneficial and involves many different ways of sharing information. Propaganda can be written, musical, or visual and plays upon and channels complex human emotions towards a desired goal. The Uncle Sam poster is the symbol of American patriotism starting in World War I and We can do it! poster became a symbol for female workers’ morale in World War II.
Misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda all have their place on the cyber battlefield. They all rely on the spreading of information to influence public opinions and alter outcomes of diplomacy, negotiations, and all out conflict.
***The next article in The New Battlefront 101 series will discuss how cyber attacks on governments effect everyone.
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