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‘Cyber winter is coming’

Cyber winter is coming”: This warning came from Yigal Unna, head of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate, in May 2020 after an attempted state-sponsored hacking into the county’s water utility infrastructure, a historic first to be done on civilian systems according to reports by The Times of Israel. The attack, widely attributed to Iran, was successfully detected and defeated.

While it sounds like a line from “Game of Thrones,” Unna’s statement alludes to “nuclear winter,” a term coined in the 1980s positing that even a limited nuclear exchange between the United States and the then-Soviet Union would result in a global environmental catastrophe.

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Over the decades, state-sponsored assaults have continuously evolved. Hacking, which started off as pranks to show off one’s programming skills, has been increasingly used for financial gain and has since moved into the realm of organized crime and espionage. Today, hacking can be used for “all-of-society” attacks: to affect another state’s ability to govern properly, damage civilian systems, bleed private companies dry, and inflict harm on a massive scale.

In 2007, suspected Russian hackers crippled Estonia’s government, banking, and media computer systems. The incident came after the Estonian government removed a Soviet World War II memorial in Tallinn, which made Russia furious. This attack led the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to declare that cyberattacks conducted by state actors or their agents, intended to violate another country’s sovereignty such as crippling its critical infrastructure, could now result in a security response from all 29 member countries, just as an attack via land, sea, or air would.

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In 2010, international inspectors accidentally discovered a computer worm sabotaging an Iranian uranium enrichment facility in order to derail its nuclear weapons program. Dubbed Stuxnet, the worm affected nuclear centrifuges, causing them to fail while remaining undetected. According to Wired.com, this was the first documented case where the hacking caused the destruction of computer-controlled equipment operating in the physical world.

Attacks often take advantage of a vulnerable situation or a crisis.

In 2015, Russian hackers were linked to shutting down Ukraine’s power grid during the winter. The hacker group, known as Sandworm, was linked to the NotPetya ransomware attacks, one of the most devastating cyberattacks in history, according to US cybersecurity firm FireEye, as reported by the MIT Technology Review.

With COVID-19, large-scale cyberattacks have been targeting essential health services, such as the virus-testing systems of the Czech Republic and the US Department of Health and Human Services. In July, the United States categorically accused China of cyberspying and theft, targeting labs developing COVID-19 vaccines. Cyberespionage is putting James Bond behind a screen, and a desk, too.

These incidents are changing the way countries view assaults on their people. For example, would the corruption of research data on possible vaccines that can save lives constitute murder or economic sabotage? Would this constitute an act of war?

Critical infrastructure differs from country to country. For example, attacks on electricity generation and distribution may not be as pressing for the Philippines, given the proliferation of generators to power up banks and hospitals. However, payment systems homed into the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ settlement platform rank higher in terms of criticality, and needs continuous devotion of resources for defense and business continuity.

The era of cybersecurity—where each entity, public or private, looked out for attacks coming into its cyberpremises—has passed. Cyberdefense, or the thwarting of a cyberattack, at the level of the State is now the main challenge; it is every bit as important, if not more, as having the latest naval vessels or fighter aircraft.

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Cyber winter is coming, even to a tropical country like the Philippines. The nation can be brought to its knees without a single shot being fired or a single pair of foreign military boots setting foot on our soil. Or maybe it’s already here. Are we ready?

(With inputs from Sam Chittick, Grace Mirandilla-Santos, and William Yu)

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Gamaliel Pascual has a 40-year career fusing corporate finance and IT. He was involved in the advocacy to pass the Philippines’ E-Commerce Act of 2000 and the Supreme Court Rules on Electronic Evidence. He is part of Secure Connections, a cybersecurity project of The Asia Foundation-Philippines. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Asia Foundation-Philippines.

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TAGS: cyberattack, cybersecurity, hacking, internet, Iran, Israel, Philippines, Russia
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