At 0500 GMT on March 20, 2013, the computer networks of major South Korean banks and television broadcasters were impacted by a likely cyberattack. According to Fox News, some of the networks were still down more than seven hours after the attack began. The mass-scale attack in South Korea is only the latest event in a wider global narrative of cyberinsecurity and chaos.
Unsurprisingly, initial suspicion has fallen on North Korea. Despite its status as a critically weak or failed state, the DPRK does have threatening military capabilities, including the potential to unleash cyberattacks. Only time will tell whether the “hermit kingdom” is responsible for the March 20 attack, which disrupted commerce in South Korea and beyond.
What is very clear, though, is that many geopolitical powers – notably China and the United States – are involved in both defensive and offensive cyber operations. I previously wrote about this brave new world of cyberwar-without-end. Even as the United States is ramping down what some previously thought to be a generational fight against Islamist terrorists, cyberwar may truly be unending.
A key reason for this dynamic is the plausible deniability that states can maintain with regard to attacks. A key reason is the pronounced role that non-state actors – whether terrorist organizations, organized crime groups, or other types of hackers – frequently play in these attacks on computer networks. Both states and non-state actors are quite active in efforts to disable or compromise critical networks. And, by definition, state-sponsored cyberattacks are covert operations. States obviously have no interest in transparency with regard to when and how they are targeting their enemies.
Even if cybersecurity is gaining more attention – both in terms of public budgets and news media coverage – not everyone agrees on the true nature of these risks. Last October, then U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly warned about the potential for a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Beyond the financial sector, utility networks, transportation grids, and other infrastructure may be seriously vulnerable to hackers. Sadly, the United States, China, and other states may see no viable alternative to a cyber “arms race” coupled with ongoing attacks. Welcome to the chaos of the international cybersphere.