World War III Started Online Years Ago

 


Photo by Mika Baumeister | Unsplash

If war was an acronym, it would stand for “We Are Right.”

 

Nothing in the history of humanity has wrought more devastation and destruction than the belief that one tribe has some form of manifest destiny over another. Outside of the killing of both innocents and combatants alike, war destroys infrastructure, harms economies, undermines the faith a population has in their leadership, and can displace scores of people as they attempt to re-establish their lives with a new more hardened outlook on life. 

 

When one country starts a war with another, the world cries foul. Nations suit up in whatever jerseys their allies wear and position themselves in preparation to either aid in the attack or help defend those on their side. When the shooting starts so do the appropriate calls of human rights violations. 

 

Why does the logic for these kinds of violations tend to start and stop with kinetic warfare when cyber warfare can have the same results, usually minus mass causalities?

 

Like conventional warfare, cyberwarfare can effectually destroy the infrastructure of any country. Imagine having local government systems destroyed electronically. Traffic lights could go out, water and wastewater availability could end, 911 call centers could be killed which means first responders can’t mobilize effectively.

 

These are real possibilities and we have seen this firsthand here in the United States thanks to cybercriminals, who offer a glimpse into what a more motivated government intelligence agency could do against U.S. infrastructure. The cities of Baltimore and Atlanta, as well as a slew of local townships, have been knocked out due to ransomware attacks in the past. Imagine every major U.S. city being hit at once and the chaos that would bring to hundreds of millions of citizens. 

 

How would the economy fair with riots in the streets thanks to the destruction of the Internet? What would happen if water systems were poisoned killing humans, cattle, and more? 

 

There are not farfetched musings of a tin foil hat conspiracy theorist either. Just ask the leadership of Oldsmar, Florida who had their water treatment plant hacked and saw the introduction of high quantities of lye (a basic disinfectant used in small amounts in water system) introduced into their water. If it hadn’t been immediately, though accidentally, caught by an employee the U.S. would have probably witnessed its first mass casualty event due to hacking. 

 

In this vein the Russian government has been wreaking cyber warfare on their adversaries for decades, harming countries and populations alike. Yet the outcries of human rights violations, the galvanization of NATO allies and other supporting countries, as well as the universal condemnation of Russia have been non-existent. Sure, it’s been mentioned in the news – and even President Biden issued a warning to President Putin directly in 2021 – but the world is now seeing what doing nothing has now done. 

 

If there are no repercussions, then why wouldn’t Vladimir Putin feel emboldened to take the next logical step and actually invade a country he had been cyber-attacking for years?

 

In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and easily took control of the Crimea region of Ukraine annexing it for Russia. Did the world, after decrying this outrage, really do anything? Well, in 2015 Russia launched a major cyberattack against Ukraine which resulted in the shutting down of a nuclear powerplant and communication systems for roughly 200,000 Ukrainians, so you tell me.

 

Russia has been launching these kinds of attacks through cutouts and cyber gangs for years. Yahoo was hacked in 2013 by a Russian Intelligence cutout living in Toronto, Canada. He was paid to hack into Yahoo to gain access to roughly 80 personal email addresses of high-profile U.S. government officials. How does an intelligence service ensure that they are not caught hitting 80-ish email boxes? They hack all three billion, which was at the time the worst data breach in history. 

Russia has also been giving shelter and safe harbor to cybercriminals as they launch ransomware and other attacks against the economies of countries around the world. The SolarWinds data breach by Russia-based cyber gang REvil gave them deep access to Fortune 100 corporations and major governments around the world. This is just one of many examples have seen in the last decade by Russia. The German and Montenegrin governments have also both been hacked or attacked by Russian cutouts and intelligence. And on and on.

 

And this doesn’t include the massive disinformation campaigns the world has seen by Russian troll farms, whose mission is to disrupt and divide society. The US took the brunt of this during the 2016 election, to the point where we still see Russian disinformation and go
vernment talking points being parroted in public and even on news shows. Finland saw its own 2015 elections become saturated with Russian disinformation campaigns leading up to their election day. The Spanish government believes that the Catalonian Independence Movement had gasoline poured on it by Russian hackers, as well as reports that their Podemos political party was receiving funds from Russian cutouts. Greece, Italy, and France have also experienced similar phenomena. 

 

Perhaps the internet, and the global interconnectivity it brings, was such a new integration into our daily lives that monolithic governments of the world were too slow to react to this ongoing crisis originating from the Kremlin. Unlike dictators that can pivot on a dime, democracies are traditionally slow to move as everything is a debate in some fashion. Maybe it’s a modified Dunning-Kruger effect, where people have been raised to have more confidence in their ability to vet legitimate news sources than they really do. Or it could also be the social media platforms prioritize profit over societal stability by not altering the algorithms that prioritize fake news and disinformation. It appears to be a combination of all these factors that Russia has used to its advantage brilliantly, and horrifically. They have created “information nuclear weapons” and have been launching them at us using our own homegrown technology.

 

So, make no mistake, this war has been going on for years. Ukraine just happens to be an ongoing front that has once again shifted to include kinetic warfare. When the Obama administration faced an aggressive 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, its response was criticized as too slow and incremental to really put pressure on Russia in any way. When Russia attacked Ukraine in 2018, taking three Ukrainian vessels hostage in the Kerch Strait, it was seen as a test by Vladimir Putin of the U.S. and its allies. Despite former President Trump’s recent proclamations that the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine would have never happened on his watch when Russia actually did attack Ukraine during his presidency his administration did basically nothing.

 

With the Internet being as indispensable as it is for the global economy, communications, governments, and societal stability, it’s time to fully understand that an attack on technological infrastructure can be just as devasting in its own way for a country. While the dropping of bombs is unmistakably a harbinger of death, the poisoning of water, knocking out electricity, and even killing access to first responders via loss of communication can do just as much damage without having to fire a single shot. 

 

America and its allies have been at war for at least a decade and it’s only going to get worse before it gets better. It’s time to wake up and act.




Nick Espinosa

An expert in cybersecurity and network infrastructure, Nick Espinosa has consulted with clients ranging from small businesses up to the Fortune 100 level for decades. Nick founded Windy City Networks, Inc in 1998 at age 19 and was acquired in 2013. In 2015 Security Fanatics, a Cybersecurity/Cyberwarfare outfit dedicated to designing custom Cyberdefense strategies for medium to enterprise corporations was launched.

A nationally recognized speaker, member of the Forbes Technology Council, TEDx Speaker, regular columnist for Forbes, award-winning co-author of a bestselling book “Easy Prey”, host of “The Deep Dive” nationally syndicated radio show, on the Board of Advisors for Roosevelt University’s College of Arts and Sciences as well as their Center for Cyber and Information Security and is the Official Spokesperson for the COVID-19 Cyber Threat Coalition. Nick is known as an industry thought leader and sought after for his advice on the future of technology and how it will impact everyday businesses and consumers. 


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