These days, battles are more likely to be fought online than in the trenches. And these scuffles don’t always look like the wars of generations past. Governments are increasingly stealing sensitive information, sowing public distrust and attacking centers of commerce and knowledge. Though attacks from rogue nations and political organizations unfold in a myriad of terrifying ways, here are just a few of their nefarious methods.
1. Grid Hacking
As far back as 2016, foreign governments were caught poking around the systems of American power suppliers. In the most famous of these state-sponsored attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security detected malware combing the system of Vermont’s Burlington Electric Department. The origin of this nefarious code? Russian civilian and military intelligence agencies.
When it comes to future and current attacks on America’s most vital infrastructure, more than likely this infiltration is just the tip of the iceberg. In March of 2018, the White House publicly blamed Russia for grid hacking. According to many experts, publicly acknowledging and condemning Russia for these insidious attacks was a step in the right direction — laying the groundwork for how the public and private sectors should respond to similar attacks in the future.
In the coming years, hacks targeting critical infrastructure — transportation systems, hospitals and electrical grids — are likely to increase. In 2016, a hack on Ukraine’s power grid left 20% of the country’s population without power.
These attacks cause vast economic damage and day-to-day inconveniences, but they also destabilize the public’s trust and sense of security. Badly behaved governments are undoubtedly crawling through older technology systems, looking for weakness that allow them to attack aging trains, planes, ships and information systems.
2. University Attacks
In democratic societies, universities serve as hubs for exchanging ideas — housing vast amounts of knowledge and intellectual property. That’s why attacks on these centers of free thought are so damaging to society.
In March 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted nine Iranian hackers for attacking more than 300 universities and 47 private organizations from around the world.
How did they do it? The cyber spies sent spear-phishing attacks to professors and staff, encouraging them to click on nefarious links that prompted them to provide their login credentials. Out of 100,000 targets, 8,000 supplied the attackers with login details, and nearly half of the victims were from U.S. institutions.
According to the Department of Justice, the compromised information amounted to $3 billion in stolen intellectual property. Since this information is of little use to criminals, all signs point to state-sponsored spying.
Intellectual property attacks have risen dramatically. Over the last two years, this type of theft has doubled at British universities. The costs of infiltrating such open networks are low, the defenses are often poor and the rewards are high. Since universities are easy targets, institutions need greater security and staffing budgets.
3. Crypto Crimes
In the future, rogue governments will turn to cryptocurrency for power and cash flow. Hackers from North Korea have allegedly targeted investors holding vast sums of bitcoin and other digital currencies.
Why? These novel new currencies provide a way for governments to circumvent sanctions — establishing coin-shuffling services and even their own exchanges.
Dictators and rogue governments are attracted to the untraceable, unauthorized elements of cryptocurrencies. These qualities, along with advanced computing power, allow them to steal vast amounts of digital money.
The best way to keep bitcoin caches safe is through cold storage, a method that keeps bitcoin entirely offline, and safe from the grasp of hackers. Unlike a hot wallet that is stored online, cold storage is an offline bitcoin address guarded by both public and private keys.
4. Election Meddling
As America gains a clearer understanding of what went down during the 2016 election, hostile governments are undoubtedly taking note of what worked and what didn’t. For interested parties, 2016 was a test case in how to exploit vulnerabilities and spread dissention in a democratic society.
In large countries like the United States, disparate security standards and the high cost of upgrading systems will continue to pose problems in this new age of cyber warfare.
In addition to spreading false information across social media channels, future cyber attacks could compromise voter rolls, voting machines and even election auditing equipment.
Russia targeted voting systems in many 2016 battleground states, and recently launched similar attacks in other democracies, such as France.
With the 2020 elections just around the corner, the U.S. and other democracies must stay vigilant and significantly enhance their security infrastructure to guard against hostile attacks.
5. Negotiation by Ransomware
With so much of today’s information stored in data systems like the cloud, holding these networks for ransom has become an increasingly popular foreign policy tool for rogue and hostile governments.
In the last few years, ransomware attacks on Britain’s National Health Service and the City of Atlanta proved just how scary these attacks can be. They can massively disrupt the day-to-day activities of major government agencies, especially in the healthcare and social security sectors.
Using relatively simple malware like the recent Wanna Cry virus, this nefarious code breaches the defenses of a system and locks down computer files with strong encryption. Hackers then demand money — often in the form of untraceable cryptocurrency — in exchange for a digital key that unlocks to the data. If the material hasn’t been backed up, victims will often pay.
Employing these types of attacks as a foreign policy tool will be most common in regions with more vulnerable networks, such as South America and South Asia. Much like taking physical hostages, rogue governments could launch such attacks as a way to force countries to the negotiating table, or force counties to pay vast sums of cash to release the stolen data.
6. Hackers for Hire
Though traditional powers like the Persian Gulf states lack vast arsenals of homegrown cyber talent, many such countries are recruiting digital mercenaries for the job. These foreign contractors are increasing capacity and ramping up offensive and defensive cyberforces for their nation-state clients. In the future, a vast influx of foreign contractors could have a major impact on conflicts in the regions where they are hired.
7. Assaults on Truth
In addition to sowing distrust and misinformation about public institutions, political leaders and media outlets, rogue nations will likely continue their assaults on trusted new sources, such as journalists and news organizations.
One recent attack in December 2018 disrupted the printing operations of a number of papers, including the The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal. Such attacks provide a terrifying glimpse into the future of information warfare and political cyber threats.
Winning the Arms Race
As cyber warfare replaces traditional warfare, government cyber squads and crime-fighting capabilities will increase, giving hackers and rogue states a run for their money. And until then, you can count on Bluefin to keep your customers safe.
We offer P2PE and tokenization services that ensure sensitive payment data is encrypted the moment it enters your system. To learn more about how you can protect your organization from a data breach, contact a Bluefin representative today.