Countries have to do more than protect their borders these days; they have to protect their databases. State-sponsored cyber attacks are on the rise, and improving cybersecurity isn’t just about privacy — it’s about national security.
It’s no secret that state-sponsored cyber attacks are prevalent throughout the world, and indications suggest they’re only going to increase.
From Russia hacking into the Democratic Party ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election to North Korea’s recent breach of South Korea’s military networks, nation-states are using high-tech espionage to gather intelligence and disrupt government activities.
Countries are not only bolstering their cyber defense, they’re also going on the offense, launching cyber attacks in retaliation. So how does all of this affect international relations, and what’s the future of cybersecurity in the age of digital warfare?
Let’s examine the growth of state-sponsored cyber attacks and what it means for global cybersecurity.
The Rise of Digital Warfare
State-sponsored cyber attacks are nothing new. Nations have been doing them for years, but with the rise of sophisticated hacking methods, these attacks are quickly becoming more prevalent.
According to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, there were an average of 500 cyber attacks on the NATO infrastructure each month last year, a 60 percent increase from 2015. “Most of these attacks did not stem from private individuals, but were sponsored by national institutions of other countries,” Stoltenberg told a German newspaper.
Recently, South Korea blamed North Korea for a data breach that leaked confidential military data. Previously, North Korea has hacked into South Korean government agencies, banks and media outlets.
Other examples of nation-state attacks throughout the world include:
- The U.S. launching the Stuxnet worm against Iran to sabotage the nation’s nuclear program in 2007
- Israel hacking a Russian security firm to gain intelligence on nation-state attacks in 2014
- Emails of Czech Republic Foreign Ministry staff were hacked in a suspected nation-state attack, officials announced in January
Not surprisingly, cyber attacks strain relations between countries, though governments rarely admit they are behind breaches. The U.S. and China agreed in 2015 to not conduct or support cyber crime against each other, particularly cyber economic espionage. This followed a major hack of the Office of Personnel Management, which breached 20 million records.
How Nation States Launch Cyber Attacks
State-sponsored hackers usually find their way into government or military networks through third-party companies. These companies are trusted business vendors to governments, and don’t consider themselves targets of state-sponsored cyber attacks.
Once hackers breach these companies’ networks, they’re able to move laterally into shared servers and systems to steal privileged credentials, access government databases and potentially take over a network.
Attackers typically use phishing attacks to breach the perimeter of an organization and then use administrative tools to gather information or install malware on the network.
How to Fight State-Sponsored Cyber Attacks
One of the difficulties in fighting state-sponsored attacks is identifying the attacker. Attributing the crime to a particular nation-state is difficult, and perpetrators always deny responsibility.
It’s particularly challenging from a policy standpoint, to gather political and international support without indisputable evidence and to navigate complex political climates. Learn more about the cybersecurity policies governments have in place to fight cyber crime in our related article, Cybersecurity Policies Around the World.
“You will always have to combine cyber data with other data, such as geopolitical intelligence and so on,” said Dr. Andrea Limbago, former senior technical lead at the Joint Warfare Analysis Center. “That’s true for any form action you want to take: You should never act on one stream of data on its own.”
Despite the challenges, nations can bolster cybersecurity through several practices, such as reviewing who has privileged accounts, limiting user access to applications and systems, monitoring irregular activity through behavioral analytics and requiring multi-step authentication for access to employee networks.
Nations are also increasing spending on cybersecurity, realizing digital warfare is the battleground of the future. According to Darren Guccione, CEO of Keeper Security, the digital fight requires plenty of cybersecurity professionals.
“We’re talking about adding 5 million jobs in this sector in the next five years,” Guccione told VentureBeat. “In any industry, that is just an enormous undertaking, and when you look at how many specialists are out there, there’s nowhere near that.… [T]here’s a cyber war going on right now, and the United States is the main target of that war, without a doubt.”
Fighting state-sponsored attacks isn’t just a government issue; it’s something that involves all business sectors. All companies need strong cybersecurity measures to combat these breaches. To find out more about a career in cybersecurity, visit our Careers section.