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Cyber Warfare is typically defined as a set of actions by a nation or organization to attack countries or institutions' computer network systems with the intention of disrupting, damaging, or destroying infrastructure by computer viruses or denial-of-service attacks.

What Does Cyber Warfare Look Like?

Cyber warfare can take many forms, but all of them involve either the destabilization or destruction of critical systems. The objective is to weaken the target country by compromising its core systems.

This means cyber warfare may take several different shapes:

  1. Attacks on financial infrastructure
  2. Attacks on public infrastructure like dams or electrical systems
  3. Attacks on safety infrastructure like traffic signals or early warning systems
  4. Attacks against military resources or organizations

Cyber Warfare vs. Cyber War

Cyber warfare is different from cyber war in that cyber warfare typically refers to the techniques used while engaging in cyber war. For example, a state-sponsored hacker may try to hack into the Bank of England as an act of cyber warfare while engaging in a cyber war against England and its allies.

What Are the Types of Cyber Warfare?

Espionage

Espionage refers to spying on another country to steal secrets. In cyber warfare, this may involve using a botnet or spear-fishing attack to gain a foothold in a computer before extracting sensitive information.

Sabotage

With sensitive information identified, organizations then need to determine the potential threats presented to this data. This includes third parties that may want to steal the data, competitors that could gain an advantage by stealing information, and insider threats or malicious insiders like disgruntled workers or negligent employees

Denial-of-Service Attack

A denial-of-service (DoS) attack involves flooding a website with fake requests, forcing the site to process those requests, thereby making it unavailable for legitimate users. This kind of attack could be used to cripple a critical website used by citizens, military personnel, safety personnel, scientists, or others to disrupt critical operations or systems.

Electrical Power Grid

Hacking the electrical power grid could give an attacker the ability to disable critical systems, crippling infrastructure and causing the deaths of thousands. Further, an attack on the electrical power grid could disrupt communications, making it impossible to use services like text messaging or telecommunication.

Propaganda

Propaganda attacks involve trying to control the minds or hearts of the people living in or fighting for the targeted country. Propaganda can be used to expose embarrassing truths or to spread lies that cause people to lose faith in their country—or even sympathize with the enemy.

Economic Disruption

Most modern economic systems depend on computers to function. Attacking the computer networks of economic facilities like stock markets, payment systems, or banks can give hackers access to funds or prevent their targets from getting the money they need to live or engage in cyber or other warfare.

Surprise Cyberattack

These refer to the kinds of cyberattacks that would have an effect similar to Pearl Harbor or 9/11—massive strikes that catch the enemy off guard, weakening their defenses. They could be used to weaken the opponent in preparation for a physical attack as a form of hybrid warfare.

what is cyber warfare

Reasons and Motivations for Cyber Warfare

Military

It is in the military’s best interests to gain control of key elements of an enemy nation’s cyberspace. An effective cyberattack could bring an enemy country’s military to its knees and secure what would have been an otherwise costly victory.

Civil

Attacking the civil infrastructure of a nation directly impacts the people living and working in the country. This could be used to inspire fear or cause them to revolt against the government in protest, weakening the opponent from a political standpoint.

Hacktavism

Hacktivism involves hackers using cyberattacks to promote an ideology. Hacktivists can engage in cyber warfare by spreading propaganda or going after secrets and then exposing them to the rest of the world. In these ways, hacktivists can weaken an opponent’s standing on the world stage, precluding support from other countries.

Income Generation

Cyber warfare “soldiers” can engage in these kinds of attacks for their own financial benefit. If they are employed by the government, they can earn a fee for their services. Further, they could break the defenses of a financial institution and steal money for themselves.

Nonprofit Research

Nonprofit research often reveals very valuable information that a country can use to solve a critical problem. For example, if a country is trying to develop a vaccine and another one already has it, cyber warfare could be used to steal information pertaining to their solution.

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Implementing Access Control for Remote Users: Security Risks and Challenges

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Cyber Warfare History and Latest Conflicts

In 2010, Stuxnet was used to inflict physical damage on an enemy’s industrial systems. It was, reportedly, used against Iran’s nuclear program. In March 2014, Russia levied a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on Ukraine and also crippled Ukraine’s election commission.

In 2015, Chinese hackers stole millions of records from the United States’ Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Also, in 2017, weaponized ransomware NotPetya was used to attack Ukraine.

Russia-Ukraine Cyber Warfare in 2022

The Russia-Ukraine crisis began in February 2022, and the war is also now happening in the cyber world. FortiGuard Labs observed new viper malware being used to attack Ukrainian targets and installed on at least several hundred machines across Ukraine. Several Ukrainian organizations have also succumbed to attacks that employed the KillDisk and HermeticWiper malware strands, which appear to destroy data on devices. 

Additionally, a copy of Remote Manipulator System (RMS), a utilities software tool that enables remote control of devices, was being distributed in Ukraine via fake “Evacuation Plan” emails. 

How Fortinet Can Help?

Fortinet provides advanced protection against cyber warfare through critical cybersecurity solutions. 

Fortinet FortiGuard Labs offers industry-leading threat intelligence on the latest security risks, cyber attacks, and zero-day events, which are critical information to have during times of cyber warfare.  

Fortinet Next-Generation Firewalls (NGFWs) offer industry-leading enterprise security with full threat protection and visibility. They provide ultra-fast, end-to-end security for consistent real-time defense, ensuring networks are constantly protected from sophisticated malware through encrypted traffic and deep, reliable, high-performance inspection. They also enable excellent user experience levels, automated workflows, and operational efficiency.

Fortinet NGFWs integrate with the Fortinet Security Fabric, the industry’s leading cybersecurity platform. Security Fabric is powered by FortiOS to provide a rich open ecosystem. It covers organizations’ extended digital attack surfaces, enabling them to protect applications, data, and devices through self-healing networking and security. 

Security Fabric is built on three key attributes: 

  1. Its broad portfolio reduces risk and ensures threat detection across the entire digital attack surface.
  2. Its integrated nature unifies operations, performance, and security for complete visibility.
  3. Its automated approach delivers a context-aware, self-healing network. 

Pairing Fortinet NGFWs with Security Fabric ensures actionable threat intelligence across the entire organization. This is critical to preventing advanced attacks like cyber warfare and establishing a consistent, coordinated, and end-to-end security posture. 

FAQs

What is cyber warfare?

Cyber warfare consists of attacks on computer systems of countries or institutions with the intention of disrupting, damaging, or destroying infrastructure.

What does cyber warfare look like?

Cyber warfare may take several different shapes:

  1. Attacks on financial infrastructure
  2. Attacks on public infrastructure like dams or electrical systems
  3. Attacks on safety infrastructure like traffic signals or early warning systems
  4. Attacks against military resources or organizations

Difference between cyber warfare vs. cyber war?

Cyber warfare is different from cyber war in that cyber warfare typically refers to the techniques used while engaging in cyber war.

What are the reasons and motivations for cyber warfare?

Cyber warfare is often driven by a desire to weaken an enemy’s military, civil infrastructure, or to influence the thinking of its citizens. In some cases, cyber warfare is caused by a desire for money on the part of the attacker.