The next generation of digital assaults

The digital network is destined to be the most important battle ground the world has ever seen and knocking it out of action is far easier than one would imagine.

Imagine trying to connect to the network and finding that you cannot. It’s a frightening scenario that could play out sooner than you think given the technologies being developed and deployed today.

These technologies can be used to attack and paralyse part or all of the digital network and internet and there is ample evidence of nation states taking a keen interest in developing offensive and defensive capabilities to disrupt networks.

Today the network is critical for everyday activities like banking, social media, email and many other activities. At the current rate of technical progress one can only imagine just how entrenched this dependence will be.

So how likely is the prospect of a cyber-war? In the past couple of weeks we have seen a cyber-war take place between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East. We also have ongoing lower intensity cyber-wars between a number of countries including Iran, Israel, China, USA, Japan, Europe and North Korea.

The reason so many countries are getting their hands dirty is because it's in their best interest to have a cohesive strategy to wage cyber-war, even if the ultimate goal for many is to simply possess an active deterrent. The digital network is strategic national infrastructure and future disagreements between countries are likely to include cyber-attacks even if the disagreement does not spill over to a shooting war.

By 2022 most nations will have developed some form of cyber-warfare capability. Rich nations will expend more money and be able to develop sophisticated tools for offensive and defensive operations. Poorer nations will look to cheaper tools but may still be effective participants in any future cyber-war.

Cost to paralyse

So how much money does it take to paralyse a network?

Earlier this month, a report highlighted the efforts of the wireless research group at Virginia Tech who had developed a simple jamming system that could disable access to a 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) base station. The cost of the jamming system was $650.

In Australia there are about 10,000 base stations and access points to the wireless cellular network for the three carriers. If you miniaturise and mass produce the jamming device then the cost might be about $100 per unit. So for about $10 million dollars you could produce enough devices to jam the entire Australian mobile phone network.

To put this into context, let’s consider the Afghanistan war where the US is spending about US $3.6 billion a month. The cost of implementing a jamming system is cheap by comparison. Build into the devices the capability to operate remotely and you could pre-position the devices months or years before they're needed.

Satellites are already quite vulnerable to attack and are expected to be one of the first casualties in any future major conflict. In 2007 and 2010 China destroyed satellites using missiles. It is to be expected that over the next decade the US and Europe will further develop systems to protect satellites in the event of missile attack though the effectiveness of any space based defensive system is likely to be limited.

In a limited cyber-war there are two ways that satellites can be attacked. The first is to jam signals to and from satellite base stations and the second is to attack the traffic going to and from the satellite base station. Let us consider our National Broadband Network (NBN). There will be about 10 satellite base stations for three satellites. One simple but crude approach would be to dig up the fibre cables leading to the base stations and splice into the cables. This would be a slow process, but one that we see already happening over the past 50 years with nations using submarines to splice into undersea telecommunication cables.

By 2022,  fully developed techniques to attack national optical networks will be available. Again a crude but simple approach would be to dig up and tap into fibres at key locations around a network - this is known as fusion splicing. Once a fibre has been spliced into this connection can be used to disrupt the traffic flowing down the fibre or as a means to inject viruses and worms into the network.

More sophisticated approaches include the introduction of dormant malware into thousands of home and office computers that can be woken up when needed to carry out mass attacks on key infrastructure such as the Domain Name System (DNS).

Techniques will be in place to attack national infrastructure connected to the digital network. Possibilities include overloading power substations, opening dams, turning all of the traffic lights red, damaging machinery in factories by turning it on and off repeatedly.

Kill switch on the ready

This may be sound like Hollywood fodder but the evidence suggests otherwise. Israel and the US have been accused of attacking Iran's nuclear reactors by using a computer virus that turned the centrifuges, that create the nuclear material, on and off until they broke.

Nations will need to ensure that there are manual kill switches on key infrastructure that will disconnect the infrastructure from the digital network in the event of a cyber-attack, however, by the time a person gets to the kill switch the damage may already be done.

Compounding the existing problem is the presence of organised crime and their ongoing attempts to  develop sophisticated tools to attack banks and financial transaction systems connected to the digital network. By 2022, we should expect organised crime to be a major player in any disruptions to the network.

The evolving arms-race will see nations implement security assurance testing regimes, which means that equipment connected to the network will be tested using a security assurance framework. This regime will include live testing of the network to discover if the network has been tampered with. More sophisticated approaches will need to be developed to discover devices like the 4G jammer. Currently, this cyber-warfare capability is in its infancy and Australia is now looking to develop this capability. 

Most of us remain unaware of the constant battles taking place on the network between nations and between law enforcement and organised crime. The network in 2022 will be the most important battle ground the world has ever seen.

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University

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