Cyber Warfare: Why This War Is Different and Why You Should Care

Cyber Warfare: Why This War Is Different and Why You Should Care

Mr. Santa Cruz

Protecting this Abbey, its employees, and the students has been a significant part of my job since I joined Priory almost 8 years ago. It’s a job I take very seriously not just because it’s how I make money to feed my family, but because as an alum of this school I care deeply about ensuring its success and I hope one day that my boys will become a part of this amazing school.

Right now we’re faced with a very scary conflict in Ukraine. While it’s not the first war in your lifetime (the U.S. was in Afghanistan from 2001 until last year), this is probably the first time you’ve looked at a military conflict and felt like it could affect you. I don’t believe the fighting will ever make its way here to our shores. I don’t believe our young men and women will be sent over there to fight for or against either side. But the truth is that right now, at this very moment some of you are actually participating in this war and probably aren’t even aware of it.

Cyber warfare is a relatively new facet of modern warfare. It involves using computer technology to gain tactical or strategic advantages against one’s enemy. Sometimes it consists of computer programmers known as hackers breaking into computers operated by the enemy and causing havoc. Other times, it involves wielding a powerful force called a botnet to bludgeon the opposition’s computer resources.

In literature and film, hackers are depicted in a variety of ways. Sometimes they’re the hero of the story, facing incredible odds to defeat a gargantuan enemy. Sometimes they’re the comic foil providing exceptional assistance to a possibly computer-inept main character. You see them on TV breaking into highly classified databases in 5-15 seconds acting like it’s no big deal. Reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Hacking isn’t as glamorous as it seems. It has also evolved significantly over time.

It used to be that hackers pored over code, looking for vulnerabilities in the software, called exploits. While some hackers still do this, a lot of exploits today are uncovered by computer programs that just run continuously. A flaw that existed and was later patched could be uncovered again by new updates to software. Automated programs can simply continue to probe to see if known flaws are unpatched in an environment. Here at Priory we are constantly being probed by people all over the world undoubtedly looking for ways into our network.

Other hackers attempt to gain access to computers and networks through social engineering. This method of hacking often results in a phishing attempt. A phish attempts to confuse a person to hand over important information such as a username and password by tricking the person to do something. Usually, phishes are done via email but there’s also a very popular phish attempt that can happen when a webpage on a website gets infected. You’ve probably seen this before, where your screen suddenly gets taken over and a message shows up saying “Your device has been infected! Call us now to get help!” The social engineering that these types of hackers employ isn’t coincidental. It’s studied by individuals who not only understand technology but human psychology.

So why is any of this relevant to you? Money and botnets.

Hackers go after you and your devices with ransomware in order to accomplish their long-term goals. Ransomware is a type of malware that hackers use to lock you out of your files. They then hold the data for ransom, paid almost exclusively in bitcoin, which is hard to track. Western economies are the ones targeted the most for ransomware because of the number of targets available (almost anyone over the age of 8 has access to at least one computer in the U.S.). The proceeds of ransomware are often used for different activities but they often support continued hacking. Hacking begets hacking. The more they get from ransomware, the more they employ it. A lot of ransomware gets tied back to Russian groups, many of whom are state-sponsored. In reality, all of them are probably state-sponsored.

Botnets, however, are a different kind of animal. A botnet is a collection of computers that are tasked with attacking different sites in order to render them useless or to overload them in order to gain access to computer systems by taking advantage of exploits. Computers that have a virus that connect them to a botnet are often unaware that they are infected. The botnet remains mostly dormant. It “phones home” on a normal basis to get commands from a central command server. Botnet viruses don’t take over your computer and they don’t slow it down. They don’t want to be found and they don’t want to take anything from you except a little bit of computing power that you usually won’t even notice is being used.

When a botnet is activated by a command server, they send out requests to their target. The sheer number of requests are designed to overload the server and make it unusable in what is called a DDoS attack (Distributed Denial of Service). When you browse the web, you ask a web server for a page. The page is then returned to your browser. In a DDoS attack, millions of computers ask for a page or a file from the web server that forces it to work so hard, it becomes unable to keep up with demand. Overworking the web server causes it to malfunction. In some cases, the goal of the DDoS attack is to simply deny access to the website. In others, that malfunction creates opportunities to infect the web server with malicious code. Botnets are also used to take each other out. The IP addresses recorded by the network receiving the first attack become targets for retaliatory strikes. The types of devices used in a botnet vary widely. From what you would normally consider a computer, like your laptop, to any internet-connected device from the IoT (Internet of Things). Your home thermostat, which is connected to your home network and ultimately the internet, could become infected and become part of a botnet.

These types of attacks are common in cyber warfare and are being employed right now by cyber teams in Russia as well as third parties (possibly even the U.S.) and this is why it should matter to you. Even 5,300 miles away from Kiev, you might still be participating in this conflict unwittingly. That’s why it’s important to keep electronics in proper working order and to check them for viruses as often as you can. In addition, apply updates as soon as you can to any of your internet-connected devices. The internet is an amazing resource — one of human kind’s greatest achievements — but it is also fraught with dangers. And now, it is one of the newest tools of modern warfare, making every war a global one.