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World War III: Cyber Warfare

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” ~Albert Einstien

World War III is well underway and has been for some time. But it isn’t being fought with tanks, missiles, and bullets. Instead, it is being fought with lines of code. Countless 1’s and 0’s whizzing by right under your nose, through the air, and engaging the enemy on an unseen battlefield.

“We’re in an arms race,” warned Chase Cunningham, the National Security Agency’s former chief cryptologic technician. The competition to find exploitable bugs before an enemy does is as intense as “the space race and the Cold War combined.” With nearly everything from heaters to machine actuators to pacemakers being controlled by microcomputers, the race for being able to “hack” these devices is growing daily.

The U.S. is working to amass a stockpile of zero-day exploits -exploits such as the famous Heartbleed bug that compromised SSL encryption. Just as eager as the government is to buy them, contractors are eager to sell them and cash in on the billions of dollars the Whitehouse has set aside for cyber warfare.

The market for exploits won’t be saturated either. Technology is constantly changing and evolving therefore battlefield is always changing and evolving as well. With every new piece of software, there may be a new way to leverage it against the enemy. One exploit may be valuable today and useless tomorrow. Or something thought of as being secure today may be found hemorrhaging data tomorrow.

Remember the Heartbleed fiasco?

Nearly any computer bug can be used as a weapon, and the NSA plans to find out how. A good computer exploit is as valuable as a bomber. Acquiring an arsenal of them certainly has a competitive advantage. That’s why the government has very recently funneled billions into cyber warfare. Contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Gruman, and others have been adding cyber warfare to their list of services by hiring hackers and developing exploits.

But cyber warfare isn’t as obvious as traditional warfare. It doesn’t leave buildings in rubble and civilian casualties. It’s a game of stealth. It often goes undetected for days, weeks, or years. The Pentagon found this out the hard way in 2008 when their computers were affected by “Agent.btz”, a worm that compromised CENTCOM computers. No one took credit for the attack, but it is largely suspected that it was perpetrated by sophisticated Russian hackers.

Russia has been suspected of highly advanced state-sponsored cyber attacks for quite a while. But they don’t compare to China, who maintains a cyber-force much more sophisticated than that even of the US. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has recently made attempts to reach out to China, attempting to create a cyber ally.

But it isn’t just the government that faces a growing threat from cyber warfare, it’s also private corporations. Millions of dollars and man hours invested in to a project can be, and have been, stolen by hackers overnight. In 2009, Operation Aurora targeted Symantec, Google, Northrup Grumman, and more.

The battlefront is always shifting and evolving. As long as computers are running the world’s technology and industry, there will be those attempting to exploit it. It seems that the Government and its private contractors are finally commencing the battle cry. But it is still too early to tell how the war will end.

About Jon

Jon is an experienced Technical Writer, Ethical Hacker, Privacy & Security Evangelist, and Master of the Margarita. With a equal passion for the Chicago Manual of Style and cyber security, Jon believes that creating security documentation is kind of a fun thing to do. He's also pretty good a "bricking" devices that were working just fine. When he's not buried in security documentation, screaming at his keyboard, sprinting to a Congressional hearing, or debating the Oxford comma way too seriously, he manages this blog from our super-secret Moonbase.