What Is Cyber Warfare?
Neither the United States government nor the international community has established a definition for the term “cyber warfare.” Even industry experts are undecided on the matter. A conservative definition would be any cyberattack that somehow leads to the loss of human life, but since this is not how most cyberattacks operate, it is an all-around ineffective definition.
Much disagreement remains over whether cyber warfare even exists, or if it’s merely a buzzword for demagogues seeking to stoke fear. Putting that critique aside, the following actions could qualify as “cyber warfare,” depending on whose definition you apply:
- Disabling a country’s ability to deliver electric power, food or water to its citizens, creating a crisis and potentially causing physical harm
- Disrupting a country’s financial system, sending them into economic ruin and rendering them less powerful
- Interfering with another country’s military communications, making it much more difficult for them to launch a physical attack or defense
- Spying on another country through technological means to keep tabs on their political moves and gain the upper hand
- Manipulating media messages through propaganda tactics in order to sway the masses
- Interfering with free and fair elections
- Stealing state security secrets or proprietary information from private businesses
How Does Cyber Warfare Compare to Traditional War?
Cyber warfare differs from traditional war on nearly every front. The goal of a physical war is straightforward – a country wants to conquer a land, suppress a people, obtain a resource, acquire wealth or defend their homeland in order to retain or expand their power, or in some cases, preserve their culture and way of life. This is usually accomplished through bloodshed. Military casualties, loss of wealth and a certain level of infrastructure damage are expected in any physical war.
By contrast, cyber warfare may not cost any lives. Cyberattacks are typically economic or information-seeking in nature. The goal isn’t to gain power through physical conquest, but through digging up secrets, stealing money and weakening another country in subversive ways. In addition, cyber warfare often occurs outside the context of a large-scale physical war. In this way, cyber warfare can be very loosely compared to the Space Race – both are power plays that display a country’s wealth and capabilities and affect international politics, but the action happens on a separate plane from regional fighting.
Additionally, cyber warfare does not take place in a physical space, though it relies on some physical components (e.g., computers, electricity) to function. This offers cyber attackers a degree of anonymity. It’s also relatively inexpensive to get started as a hacker. The end result is that attacks can come from anywhere, including from:
- Cyber criminals
- Foreign government agents
You will notice that some of these entities’ attacks could be considered acts of war, whereas others would likely not be. Without a way to tell the aggressors apart, especially when a foreign government could be acting through a non-governmental entity, it’s nearly impossible to assign blame accurately and retaliate against a suspected institution in a justifiable way.
Civilian populations may be more at risk during cyber warfare than traditional warfare, as well. Cyberattacks are more likely to affect ordinary citizens than ever before, if the recent company-wide information breaches are any indication. Fortunately, the replacement of traditional warfare with cyber warfare remains a science fiction fantasy … for now. While some think it’s the future of warfare, this is highly unlikely, especially within the next century.
What Is Cyber Deterrence?
In the most basic terms, deterrence is attack prevention. This prevention can take many forms, including displays of military power, international laws that limit military action and physical or cyber retaliation against attacks. The end goal is to stop a country with threatening capabilities from taking offensive military action.
Deterrence may be best understood through the lens of nuclear warfare. Countries may be deterred from launching a nuclear missile because:
- The country they plan on attacking has exhibited nuclear power in the past by dropping or testing a bomb
- The country they plan on attacking has an impressive nuclear arsenal that is ready to be deployed in retaliation
- The international community has rules in place governing nuclear attacks
- The international community will take punitive action against any country that launches a nuclear attack
- The aggressor’s stated motivation has been discredited by another country or by factions within their own country
Cyber deterrence is somewhat harder to define because cyberattacks are inherently different from physical ones. Aside from bragging about cyber prowess, a country cannot prove that it maintains military supremacy in cyberspace. Additionally, countries low on traditional resources can gain a foothold in international politics through cyber warfare; with the low economic barrier to entry and the lack of physical restrictions in cyberspace, there is no limit to the cyber power any one country might obtain. This means rich countries can no longer dominate world politics simply by spending exorbitant amounts of money building up their military defense and stockpiling weapons.
Some claim that the best defense is a good offense, and this logic seems to prevail among certain circles in the tech word. Organizations have taken to claiming responsibility for cyberattacks and information leaks after the fact as a means of showing off their cyber warfare capabilities and deterring potential attackers. Others advocate “active defense,” in which a country that fears being attacked may set cyber traps to confuse, mislead or stun any country attempting a cyberattack. As of yet, there is no international law in place should a country choose to launch a large-scale cyberattack, but such an agreement could deter countries from cyber warfare in the future.
Learn More About Cyber Attacks at Washington Technology University
We may not be in full-fledged cyber warfare just yet, but hackers are getting savvier and cyberattacks are becoming harder to remedy each day. At Washington Technology University, you can learn how to fend off cyberattacks with our Bachelor of Science in Information Security. Our program is designed for students who already hold an Associate degree (or equivalent) and wish to earn their Bachelor’s. The degree is quite flexible and affordable compared to similar programs, and students can graduate in just 18 months by following our course block schedule.
If you are interested in earning a degree and starting a profitable career in information security, contact WTU at (425) 223-5812 today!