The mouse is mightier than the missile : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Cyberwar: The mouse is mightier than the missile By R P C Americo Hacker wars are now a regular part of regional, religious and ethnic conflict - from the Middle East to the Taiwan Strait. Opponents launch sophisticated sneak attacks on each other’s websites. A group calling itself the Pakistani Hackerz Club seized the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) website and replaced the powerful pro-Israeli lobby’s home page with anti-Israeli slurs. The Pakistanis also broke into AIPAC's databases, lifted the credit card numbers of 700 powerful Jewish supporters and then e-mailed 3,500 AIPAC members to boast about their exploits. Israeli cyber warriors have met their match in extremist groups like Hamas and Hizbollah whose computer-literate youngsters have become adept at throwing ‘virtual’ electronic stones. The Palestinian side is calling it ‘e-Jihad’ or electronic holy war against Israel and the US.

"It is the first ‘inter-fada’, and the cyberconflict will probably intensify. The sophistication of attacks is expected to increase as attackers on both sides have time to prepare and launch more intricate actions. In the event that either side deploys viruses or Trojan horses, digital infections will not remain confined to their intended targets. Such cyber attacks will spread to the Internet as a whole, infecting systems worldwide."

The extract above is taken from the introduction to a report released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, in December 2000.

Cyberactivism or ‘hacktivism’ may be Internet-based but its effects are certainly not ‘virtual’. ‘Battle of servers, battle of hearts: new media cyberwar’ was the name of a symposium which took place in January 2001 at the Ben Gurion University in the southern Israeli town of Beer Sheva. The symposium aimed to examine a relatively unexplored dimension of new media and cybermedia and to assess how they are applied in the context of real war, how they compare with virtual war games, what really happens in virtual wars, are they important and what are the other implications.Speakers at the symposium pointed out that rather than replacing the desire for real conflict, the activities of extremist groups on the web creates wider communities of the like-minded than was previously possible. These direct channels of communication and information distribution may actually result in increased action on the ground.

Cyberattacks now arise whenever disputes occur anywhere in the world. They are part of the war of words but can cyberterrorism and cyberwar be far behind? Two young Filipino university drop-outs demonstrated with the ‘love-bug’ that even amateurs can cause billions of dollars in damage by shutting down a corporate system and effectively putting it out of business for a day or two, or by stealing proprietary data.

Limor Yagil who lectures on terror and the Internet at several Israeli universities said at the symposium: "The Muslim world understood the importance of the Internet very early. They adopted a new strategy of online Jihad or e-Jihad. They created an Islamic community on the Internet which unites a Muslim in Afghanistan, for example, with what is happening in Algeria and Israel."

However, both sides in the Israel-Palestinian/Arab cyberwar are making use of this distribution channel. For example, Gilad Rabinovich, CEO of NetVision, the leading Israeli ISP admitted: "We started it. It was so sexy, let’s put an Israeli flag on the Hizbollah site. And then they woke up."

In fact, a group of Israeli hackers has fired multiple salvos in the on-going Israeli-Palestinian cyber-war, defacing several anti-Zionist websites. The group, which goes by the name of "m0sad" (not to be confused with Mossad, Israel’s elite intelligence agency), defaced the Internet home page of the service provider Destination, the Internet wing of Beirut's ITX, apparently in retaliation for the company’s continued service to al-Manar Television, the official Web site of the Islamic fundamentalist group Hizbollah. The attack disrupted service on ITX’s Destination website for over six hours, according to the company. Instead of the normal home page, visitors were treated to a jarring black screen that stated in large white type: "site closed by m0sad". ITX's general manager Ziad Mugraby later told news sources that m0sad had accessed the company's website through NetVision.

Ben Venzke, director of intelligence special projects at Internet security firm, reported that m0sad is the first pro-Israeli hacking group to expand the cyber-campaign against the Palestinian Intifada beyond pro-Palestinian websites by targeting websites throughout the Arab world. In fact during six weeks m0sad has defaced sites in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The group also vandalized the official website of the Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, apparently in protest over pro-Palestinian cyberattacks against official Israeli sites.

Despite these recent Israeli hack-attacks, Palestinian hackers are more than holding their own. According to the iDefense report published on January 3, 2001, if sheer quantity is a measure of success, the Palestinian hacktivists seem to be winning. There have been around 40 pro-Israeli assaults against websites sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, versus over 200 assaults against Israeli websites by Palestinian hackers. Ben Venzke claims that the reason for the statistical discrepancy has probably been that Palestinian hackers can attack ‘.il’ addresses, Israel's top level (TLD) domain, whereas organizations like m0sad have to search out multiple TLD's to wreak equivalent mayhem.

Cyberwar, however, is not restricted to Israeli/ Palestinian-Arab conflict. Throughout January computer hackers broke into 26 government Internet sites on three continents in "one of the largest, most systematic defacements of worldwide government servers on the web", according to the news. The defacements affected websites in the US, UK and Australia. The break-ins were attributed to a group called Pentaguard, which has previously been responsible for 48 attacks of a similar nature. The hackers caused servers to crash, sent greetings to other hackers, and left rambling messages with references to beer, sex and Ferraris, but officials claimed that they did not do any serious damage. This was not the largest of recent hacker attacks, but it was significant because it simultaneously spanned three time zones, meaning that the hackers wanted to complete the act while nobody was sleeping. All the sites affected remained defaced for at least 15 minutes.

Also in January 2001, during the annual conclave of global political and economic luminaries at the Alpine resort of Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum (WEF), unprecedented security precautions failed to prevent computer hackers from tapping into a database and stealing credit-card numbers of about 1,400 prominent people. The computer break-in came to light when the Swiss weekly SonntagsZeitung revealed that its reporters had been shown data on a CD-ROM containing 80,000 pages of information, including credit-card numbers, passport information and personal cell-phone contacts of some of the WEF’s participants. These representatives are among the world's most famous, rich and powerful people. The victims included former US president Bill Clinton, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, South African President Thabo Mbeki, Microsoft’s co-founder Bill Gates and other prominent corporate executives, the Swiss weekly said. SonntagsZeitung was told that the cyber-attack was carried out by unknown hackers who managed to break into a ‘remnant database’ that contained information about participants who attended some of the WEF’s regional meetings held last year. The stolen material appeared to consist mainly of biographical data readily available to the public, but for about 1,400 people more private information was accessed.

During the conference, thousands of Swiss police set up an elaborate array of roadblocks and barbed wire barricades that transformed the Davos conference center into an impregnable fortress. The security measures were taken to thwart any mayhem by anti-globalization demonstrators, who had threatened for months to disrupt what they call an elitist conspiracy designed to promote the interests of big business to the detriment of the world’s poor.

During January 2001, computer hackers obliterated the website of the Egyptian central bank. The website, which usually features billowing Egyptian flags and an old, sepia photograph of the bank, was turned all in black, overlaid red text in Portuguese including several Brazilian Internet addresses: "Ha ha ha ha and you still say Brazilians are stupid..." was part of the triumphant hackers’ message.

In the Asian continent more than 40 Indian sites have been infiltrated during last year by hackers like G Force Pakistan and Doctor Nuker, who have left poignant pro-Pakistan slogans and reasons why Kashmir belongs to that country.

On August 1, 1998, the Portuguese group Kaotik Team hacked 45 Indonesian government websites, altering web pages to include messages calling for full autonomy for East Timor. Mailbombs were delivered and several other Indonesian government sites were hacked some days later by hackers from China and Taiwan, to protest the fact that Chinese-Indonesians were targeted for torture, rape and looting during the anti-Suharto riots in May of that year.

Incidents that were once locally confined now can have international repercussions, and cross both public and private lines. Despite the prevalence of these amateur hacker attacks, it is clear that there is the possibility of a full-scale cyberwar between national governments. Actual cyberwar is difficult to carry out on a large scale. However, information warfare strategies are becoming increasingly embedded in national defense plans and intelligence operations, not only in the US, but also in countries like the UK, France, Israel, China, and Russia. Although many experts believe that the threat from nation states is currently overstated, the potential for sophisticated cyberwar tactics is likely to evolve rapidly.

Experts who believe that the risk is ‘overstated’ tend to be thinking in terms of traditional threat assessment models, which look for big footprints and may not be appropriate to the much more subtle and obscure cyber threats. In addition, intelligence gathering on information attacks poses strong challenges legally and operationally. Although no serious nation-based attacks have been detected to date, it is important to note that many documented attacks have had national organizations behind them, or have supported nationalist motives. For example, there have been persistent probes of US businesses, universities, and government agencies by Russians, economic espionage by French companies and French intelligence, attacks by Palestinian or pro-Palestinian groups on the websites of US companies that actively do business with Israel and so on.

What is information warfare and what are the realistic threats to a country’s national security?

Information warfare (IW) can encompass everything from electronic jamming to psychological operations. The focus here however, is defense against the deliberate exploitation of information systems’ inherent vulnerabilities in a manner that affects national security. The reality of IW is that all systems are vulnerable. As states grow more dependent on information systems, vulnerabilities will increase.

These weaknesses are compounded by the fact that military and civilian information systems are intimately linked. Railroads for example, are controlled by relatively penetrable civilian systems and much of the military’s unclassified message traffic travels on the Internet. In cyberwar, civilian information systems can be as critical as military systems and any effort to build a truly secure national information system will require close cooperation between business and government for each country.

As war becomes more information intensive, the need for such cooperation grows. The Gulf War taught us that strong information management skills could translate into battlefield success, but information technology shares one characteristic with older military technology; defensive countermeasures are both simpler and cheaper.

Cyberwar requires a small capital investment to achieve tremendous results. The necessary computer equipment is easily obtained and is becoming less expensive every day. A team of computer mercenaries could be hired for less than the cost of one fighter aircraft. IW can also be carried out remotely. A state or terrorist organization could easily disperse its operatives around the world making it difficult to pinpoint any attack and retaliate. The bottom line is that information warfare is cheap, effective and well within the reach of almost any state or well-endowed terrorist organization. The potential for the Davids of the world to fling a well-placed rock against the Goliaths may actually be greater in the information age than in the industrial age.

According to a report from the California based think-tank the Rand Corporation, entitled In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age, authors John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt define infowar or cyberwar as, "conducting military operations according to information-related principles. It means disrupting or destroying information and communications systems. It means trying to know everything about an adversary whilst keeping the adversary from knowing much about oneself. It means turning the ‘balance of information and knowledge’ in one’s favor, especially if the balance of forces is not. It means using knowledge so that less capital and labor may have to be expended."

University of Ottawa human-rights professor Gregory Walters, wrote in the Ottawa Citizen last year that the world of information warfare is, "a world where logic bombs, computer viruses, Trojan-horses, precision-guided munitions, stealth designs, radio-electronic combat systems, new electronics for intelligence gathering and deception, microwave weapons, space- based weapons, and robotic warfare are being discussed, developed and deployed."

Technology is changing the equations of power, challenging the conventional channels of communication, distributing and disseminating influence in the broadest possible fashion. It is democratizing the channels of communication and side stepping the gatekeepers. This technology has a mind-boggling potential to break through barriers and overcome political obstacles, to educate, inform and be an agent of political change. These events should be borne in mind when doing business on the Internet. Every Internet user is in the middle of a battlefield. Security becomes a key work to keep the quality of service and corporation image.

The mouse is mightier than the missile.

-- Martin Thompson (, April 05, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ