Analysts have watched the international stage closely for years as nation-states compete in an ever-intensifying arms race. Unlike in the past, however, it’s not nuclear weapons or missile caches at the center of the contest. Instead, world superpowers and a number of developing nations have been fortifying their hacking capabilities and targeting one another for multiple ends: intelligence gathering, sabotage, political interference, the list goes on.
Is this hacking cold war headed toward an all-out conflict? Or has the cyber war already begun, as some researchers have claimed? Certainly, the number of attacks by foreign nation states has increased in the U.S., and the effects on companies, government agencies, the 2016 presidential election and the public in general have been severe.
Let’s look at some recent attacks attributed to nation-states to see just how urgent the international hacking environment is.
Intellectual Property Thefts
In October 2015, tensions between the U.S. and China had reached a head, following a number of Chinese hacks into major American corporations. That month, President Barack Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the two leaders agreed to a pact prohibiting further cyber espionage activity.
One year later, despite the agreement, security research firm FireEye reports that Chinese hackers continue to breach corporate networks, likely for the purpose of stealing trade secrets. If China can use this data to produce imitation products and services, it could harm the balance of the U.S. economy.
Stealing Cyber Weapons
In August of this year, a group called the Shadow Brokers leaked data containing a trove of exploit methods that the NSA had stockpiled for use in surveillance activities. Aside from embarrassing the NSA and shedding light on its secret operations, this hack placed sophisticated cyber weapons in the hands of anyone with basic computer skills.
Experts suspect the group responsible has ties to Russia.
The Democratic National Committee found itself the target of a major hack that exposed thousands of emails, some of which showed preferential treatment for Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Earlier in October, the U.S. officially accused Russia of hacking the DNC databases to interfere with the election.
Yahoo! Inc., the struggling web services group currently negotiating its sale to Verizon Communications Inc. was dealt a major blow upon learning it had been the victim of a major hack. In fact, this breach, which compromised more than half a billion email accounts and passwords, ranks as one of the largest-scale cyber incidents of all time.
When Yahoo officials initially claimed the hack was likely foreign-state-sponsored, some analysts were skeptical. However, an independent investigation by security firm InfoArmor found the hack did appear to be linked to Eastern European state-backed hackers. The firm suggests the motivation is espionage of accounts linked to U.S. military and government officials.
As international hacks rise in prevalence, remember that no company or agency is too small to be a target. In fact, foreign hackers will often target smaller, less protected groups to gain access to their clients and partners. The sophistication of their methods surpasses those that can be identified by common vulnerability scans; they require proactive security measures, such as penetration testing and centralized security operations, to combat.
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