The Reality of Cyberwarfare

Earlier this year, it was exceedingly popular for tech journalists to write columns about the future of international conflict: Cyberwarfare. Instead of (or in addition to) building and maintaining physical armies of human soldiers and advanced weaponry, it was written that governments would soon develop arsenals of computer programs designed to launch attacks on countries’ digital assets, pilfering sensitive data or disabling vital systems. In most of these posts, journalists used language to indicate that cyber warfare will occur in a not-so-distant future — but a future nonetheless.

Well, it seems that future has arrived.

North Korea’s Recent Cyberattacks

While North Korea’s failed attempts at developing long-range nuclear weaponry might dominate the news cycle, the communist country claims a long list of successful attacks on global powers — using only computers. For years, North Korea has perpetrated some of the most heinous cyberattacks in history, pilfering millions of dollars, debilitating large corporations, and stealing state secrets. Kim Jong Un’s army of hackers, which the American government has dubbed “Hidden Cobra,” have become increasingly bold, and their current cyberattacks are at least as devastating as conventional weapons.

Most recently, the FBI issued alerts regarding two types of malware developed by Hidden Cobra to infiltrate Western companies and governments. Both viruses spread through typical vectors — compromised downloads or links — and allow North Koreans remote access to Western devices, and both viruses seem to have been in use for at least a year, possibly more. The objective of this malware seems to be gaining intel on aerospace, telecommunications, and financial industries in the U.S. U.K. and U.S. intelligence agencies have linked other serious malware attacks with Hidden Cobra, including the WannaCry ransomware which shut down much of the U.K.’s National Health Services as well as other vital European businesses.

Yet, this is hardly the beginning. In 2014, one obviously North Korean attack incapacitated Sony, bringing down servers and leaking sensitive employee information, because the movie studio produced a satirical film about an assassination plot on Kim Jong Un. In 2016, Hidden Cobra gained access to the South Korean military intranet, stealing a significant number of incredibly classified U.S. and South Korean plans — including a very real assassination plot on Kim Jong Un. Additionally, last year the Bangladesh Central Bank lost $101 million to North Korean fraud, and most of those funds have not been recovered. It seems that Hidden Cobra is capable of infiltrating and ravaging nearly any device and organization with its cyberattacks.

What This Means for Regular People

Fortunately, though Hidden Cobra is obviously effective, it isn’t especially advanced. North Korea’s favored tactics include spear phishing, or disguising malware as content from a trusted source, and watering hole attacks, which requires corrupting a popular website and placing weaponized content there. There are some hints and whispers of more powerful techniques, like the development of botnets, but as yet, behavior of this type cannot be tied directly to Pyongyang like the other attacks are.

Furthermore, Hidden Cobra rarely attacks individuals. Though personal devices may fall victim to some of the North Korean malware floating around the web, computers not connected to high-profile organizations seem to be of little concern to North Korean hackers — so far.

Ultimately, average citizens with strong antivirus software have little reason to fear Hidden Cobra when it comes to protecting their personal devices and data. However, because North Korea can efficiently penetrate organizations of major size and scope, regular people may still suffer from data leaks, server shutdowns, and other large-scale attacks. Unfortunately, there is little that laypeople can do to ensure such protection; rather, business and government leaders must take responsibility for defense in the age of cyberwarfare.

How Cyberwarfare Might Escalate

Organizations are just beginning to accept that establishing cyber-defenses is a necessary cost of doing business. However, it isn’t enough to keep up with emerging attack tactics; organizations — especially government agencies — must be well ahead of Hidden Cobra and similar attackers to ensure safety and security. Yet, the U.S.’s cybersecurity standards are woefully out of date, leaving nearly every organization (and by extension, every citizen) vulnerable to North Korea’s cyberattacks.

Smart machines are rapidly being accepted as valuable tools to hackers — but they could just as easily work as forces of good. Indeed, cybersecurity experts agree that automation is the future of cyberwarfare. Machine learning allows programs to take in huge amounts of data to find trends and patterns. This can help organizations recognize looming attacks and help them develop stronger defense tactics before those attacks are successful.

Undoubtedly, cyberwarfare will get worse before it gets better. Experts predict a future of near-constant harassment by government-sponsored hacking teams, like Hidden Cobra or Russia’s Fancy Bear. The chaos in cyber-systems undermines prevailing international order, which benefits states looking to grab power fast. The only viable solution is to band together likeminded organizations with cutting-edge defense tactics that make cyberattacks less fruitful. Otherwise, it could be cyber nuclear winter relatively soon.