War in the age of cyberattacks and social media

Apr 04, 2022

War in the age of cyberattacks and social media

By Rick Crawford

As the people of Ukraine valiantly resist the invasion of their country by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, widespread ownership of cell phones with cameras, the internet, and other modern telecommunications are ushering in a new era of warfare, with the internet now a theater of war. This presents new challenges for, and requires fresh thinking from, U.S. policymakers.

Cyberwarfare is raging between Russia and Ukraine. The combatant nations are hacking into each other’s military, financial, utility, and information technology sectors. They use malware, ransomware, and attacks that completely wipe their adversaries’ computers. What’s more, experts have determined that even before their troops entered Ukraine, Russia was seeding some Ukrainian computers with silent viruses for later triggering.

Ukraine itself cannot compete with the overwhelming hacking capabilities of Russia. This led to Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov’s unprecedented request for volunteer hackers across the globe to form an “IT Army” to target Russian military, government, and corporate targets. (It’s worth noting that even “benevolent” hacking is largely illegal in many countries, including the United States.)

The internet is also being used to raise money for the Ukrainian military, including via cybercurrency. Given the scope of the war, the millions of dollars raised is not likely to prove decisive, but it might lift the spirits of Ukrainian who learn of this outpouring from across the globe, and it allows people everywhere who want to express their outrage to do something more tangible than putting a Ukrainian flag on their social media accounts.

Mobile phones cameras and social media apps present new threats, and opportunities, for combatant nations. The world is watching this war unfold in real-time, livestreamed on Twitter, TikTok, and other outlets. Reports of troop movements and casualties as they occur are now magnified as every civilian and soldier with a phone is akin to a multimedia reporter.

But those reports can be seen by friend and foe alike. Military operations must evolve to account for the global, public distribution of such detailed, up-to-the-minute tactical information – and the new opportunities for disinformation it provides.

In future conflicts, America will be called to defend against the tactics used in these new theaters of war. Already, the United States is the number one target of cyberattacks from adversarial nations and non-state actors. In 2021, we saw damaging compromises of a leading meat processor, the East Coast’s largest energy pipeline, hospitals, government agencies, and some of our most advanced technology companies: all done at the hands of computer hackers.

In August 2021, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) established the public-private Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative (JCDC) to “unify defensive actions and drive down risk in advance of cyber incidents occurring.” While that is a step in the right direction, the innumerable and rapidly changing cyberthreats we face demand further action.

It is imperative that our public and private sectors, and those of our allies, work collaboratively to defend against this onslaught of cyber-threats, as we elevate our capabilities in these emergent fronts. This must also include development of offensive cyber-capabilities to serve as a deterrent to those who would attack our national security or economic well-being.

With the ability to achieve military objectives from a computer anywhere in the world, our armed forces and intelligence community are diversifying their ranks with new warriors, skilled in STEM subjects like computer science and coding, physics and engineering, and artificial intelligence. The long-term success of these efforts requires upgrades to our educational system, as well as for military recruiters to expand their footprint among the tech savvy.

The United States must also make clear to our adversaries, and the world’s malign non-state actors, that we will respond forcefully and decisively to cyber attacks – that we view cyberthreats with the same gravity as any other threat to our freedom or way of life.  

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