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Governments Are Hacking Each Other – Here’s how

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It is possible that the face of warfare might be changing. It will no longer be violent but technological. Every year, the NSA’s director releases a document titled Worldwide threat assessment, which outlines the biggest threats to national security in the US. Cyber-security was first mentioned in 2011, and back then, it was among the lower rank threats. Mere two years later, it reached to number one and has remained at the top place ever since. The statement that hackers are hooded loners who live in their parents’ basement is a stereotype that has outgrown our times. American states already have entire departments of National Defence dedicated to fighting cyber-security threats. But some nations don’t just have the defence; they also have the cyber offence. Let us take a look at ways some countries are using hacking on the global stage.

Iran Cyber Attack

In 2010, an unknown form of malware hit thousands of computer systems around the world. The worm was named ‘Stuxnet,’ and it was designed to target Windows computers running SCADA software. Developed by Siemens, SCADA stands for ‘Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition,’ it is used to control and manage power grids. The main objective of the virus was to get those computers that control the power supply. It began systematically, shutting down its PLC’s. Stuxnet’s end target was Iran’s first nuclear enrichment facility, which was due to open in October of that year. These facilities are extremely well protected. They systems are not connected to the internet in such a way that one can simply download a bug. Getting into the plant was a matter of being brought inside physically. The 500KB worm was dropped in Iran and scattered itself across the companies which designed PLC’s.

One such company was ‘Perpetua’, an engineering firm that is geographically centred around Iran’s nuclear facilities. According to the US Federal Court documents, the company was involved in illegal procurement activities inside Iran. The virus kept spreading via USBs until it found itself at within reach of employees of the targeted plant. Three separate employees unknowingly infected the plant with a worm by connecting USB drives from external infected computers into the secure facility. In January of that year, the International Atomic Energy Agency noted that the centrifuges which were used to boost uranium were failing at abnormal rates. It was a complete mystery to the operators with no apparent root causes.

Some months later, an investigation by a computer security agency on the random crashes and rebooting of computers across all Iran eventually lead to the discovery of ‘Stuxnet.’ It was perhaps the world’s first digital weapon that we know of, at least. But before anyone could find out, the worm had already begun working, systematically decreasing the plant’s reliability. It is clear that such a sophisticated program that passed under malware searches and the heavy security systems of nuclear facilities was not some lone wolf’s work. It was a big group with funding and detailed knowledge of nuclear processes and security systems.

As stated in The Washington Post, unnamed US officials have admitted that Stuxnet was a joint effort between the US and Israel. They expressed that the program was first developed under the Bush administration and continued Obama’s. The program code-named ‘Olympic Games’ was initially never meant to be released into the wild, but as the US and Iran’s nuclear talks hit a standstill, the ultra-sophisticated worm was let out. Was accidental or purposeful? No one knows.

Greatest Hack in World History

In 2012, the world’s worst hack surfaced in UAE. It was titled ‘Shamoon,’ and it would hit a big blow upon a giant of industry and sent shock waves through entire global economy. Saudi Aramco is owned by Saudi Arabia. It supplies approximately 10% of the world’s oil, and it is the world’s most profitable company by a long shot. This attack began strategically in the month of Ramadan when most employees were on holiday. It took only some hours to infect the 35,000 computers and began to remove data and corrupt their machines. The deleted data was replaced by an image of burning American flag. Saudi Aramco stopped moving. Computer technicians at Saudi Aramco workers frantically ripped out cables from the back of computers across the world. They were trying all that they could to prevent the virus from spreading.

The network required to carry out transactions was simply no longer there. In a few hours, the world’s most profitable company was thrown back into the stone ages. They had to stop trucks from loading as there was no system to pay. Tanker trucks were backed up for kilometres in a standstill. They even began using paper and pen as if it was the 1970’s all over again. The company hired an army of IT experts to rectify the hack; they sent agents directly to Southeast Asia to purchase as many hard drives as possible, straight from production floors. A recent flood in Thailand had hampered production of hard drives already, and now Saudi Aramco was buying all that was left. It created a ripple effect on the economy as hard drives prices increased exponentially for some period. After five months, the company’s system was brought back online, with far improved cyber security protection.

The hackers that created the ‘Shamoon’ virus have never been identified, at least according to the official records. It is a mysterious case. The skill to create such a sophisticated program and leave no link behind is undoubtedly the work of an advanced funded group. However, the motives of this group are unclear. It was a specifically targeted attack. But on who? On the Saudi government? Or Saudi Aramco itself? Or was it even the whole oil and gas industry? And what did that burning American flag signify? Perhaps we will never find out.

Coming to 2016, The United States was in the middle of an election between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. Both sides were getting more radical. One of the pivotal moments during her campaign’s downfall came at the hand of her emails. Thousands of Clinton emails leaked on the internet through Wiki Leaks, The Guccifer 2.0 persona, and DC leaks. According to the CIA, leaks came at the hands of groups like ‘fancy bears’ and ‘cozy bear.’ According to US intelligence, they have been linked to the Russian intelligence agency, the GIU. The emails were released at strategic times during the presidential run. It prompted people to think whether whistleblowers released the emails. The Democratic National Committee was also hacked, leading to the resignation of DNC’s chairwoman. It is still unclear whether Russia was behind this incident or the US government is hiding the truth. It is also likely that we will never find out who was the real culprit behind these attacks.

What are the Dangers of Hacking?

However, the main point is that the potential ability of nation-states to alter other nations’ electoral affairs is becoming something that the cyber age has brought to life. Previously, if nations wanted to interfere with other countries, they would have to wage war, use inside double agents or have a vast interconnected and corrupt political network already established within that nation. Today, it could be possible with just a laptop and an internet connection. Hacking has been around ever since the computers were created, but as we move more of our infrastructure network and governments to the digital age, they can become exposed to attacks.

However, these are just growing concerns. Ultimately, more attention and funding will be given to creating more secure systems to prevent malicious hacking attempts. Who knows, much like fighting wars brought us innovations like the computer and more elongate range aircraft, maybe the hacking wars will advance the state of online security.

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Muhammad Bilal Latif is a writer at The News Engine; writing content on different niches like world, technology, lifestyle and news. He has a keen mind when it comes to exploring the most valuable stories out there. Bilal believes in the idea that this world is filled with information that can benefit us in a variety of ways. Seeking knowledge is the most valuable act we can do as human beings. The more we know, the better we can make our lives. Bilal will continue to bring new interesting topics for you, keep an eye out!

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