Monday, October 15, 2018

Cyber-warfare: Time for the USA to take the gloves off? - Julio Rivera

by Julio Rivera

Cyber-attacks can be just as dangerous as conventional weapons. We should not tolerate them against us.

Prior to the attempted foreign policy reset between the United States and North Korea that occurred earlier this year, the U.S. excoriated the North Korean regime in connection with the widespread and lucrative WannaCry attacks of 2017. 

The ransomware attack occurred in May of 2017 and hijacked more than 300,000 computers in 150 countries with unpatched Windows 7 operating systems. In December of 2017, homeland security adviser Tom Bossert stated that the attacks caused "havoc and destruction" and categorized North Korea as a "largely unchecked" bad actor in the cyber-crime realm for more than a decade.

Ransomware, among many malicious application variations with a focused objective of destruction and money extortion schemes, has consistently been deployed by the enemies of America against government entities, financial institutions, and the average citizen. The WannaCry version of ransomware encrypted the victim's computer files, rendering them inoperable. The ransomware would then demand a payment from the owner. If the user refused to pay, his files would remain permanently encrypted.

Wannacry had some serious repercussions in certain countries. In the United Kingdom, multiple National Health Service hospitals were rendered inoperable due to the malware and were forced to redirect non-critical emergencies to other hospitals. Security researches have also stated that the damage done by WannaCry would have been exponentially greater had it targeted critical infrastructure systems.

North Korea is hardly the only country engaging in this type of nefarious activity, as an August 2018 report from cyber-security firm Accenture shows a "significant" increase in cyber-attacks and cyber-espionage campaigns initiated by Iran.

During the first half of 2018, Iranian state-sponsored attackers in concert with other hacktivists in the country have presented a "disruptive or destructive cyber-threat against the United States, Europe, and the Middle East," according to the Accenture Cyber Threatscape Report 2018.

Regarding the potential for "high-value" attacks against our most critical infrastructure, the report also states, "The oil and gas industry will continue to be an attractive target for threat actors, given the disruption that a cyber incident could inflict on the security and economy of an oil-producing country."

We already have a better than good idea who the culprits are, but how do we combat it? The United States has moved toward attempting a diplomatic solution toward denuclearization with North Korea, but the possibility of snags related to the fallout of WannaCry may factor into the eventual outcome of this round of diplomacy.

According to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal written by Bossert during the time that he was publicly casting North Korea as accountable for the WannaCry attack, the U.S. intended to "continue to hold accountable" hackers "who harm or threaten" us, "whether they act alone or on behalf of criminal organizations or hostile nations." This editorial came on the heels of the release of the U.S. National Security Strategy, which calls for "swift and costly consequences on foreign governments, criminals, and other actors who would undertake significant malicious cyber activities." This language leaves open the possibility of retribution, including "hack backs," which may include counter-cyber-operations.

These potential counter-actions may not actually breach any legal obligation to the target nation. This is based on the fact that an "injured" state may take actions that would normally be considered illegal, but not if they are carried out in response to another nation's unprovoked aggression. This type of cyber-operation can be designed to compel the "responsible State" to make reparations for damages.

National security adviser John Bolton holds aggressive ideas on combating international cyber-threats. In various editorials, speeches, and cable news appearances, he has stated that the U.S. should deploy its "muscular cyber-capabilities" against attacks perpetrated by countries like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea and make the penalties for their attacks "so high that they will simply consign all their cyber-warfare plans to their computer memories to gather electronic dust."

As the fallout from the U.S. pulling out from the Iran nuclear deal and the continuing saga that is the denuclearization of North Korea develop, whether or not these inhumane regimes continue to engage in cyber-warfare and how we address it is certain to play a major role in future negotiations.

Julio Rivera, editorial director at, is a small-business consultant based in New York City.


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