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History of Cyber Warfare and the Top 5 Most Notorious Attacks

Cyber Warfare Meaning

Cyber warfare involves weaponizing hacking skills to either initiate attacks or prevent different types of cyber attacks. Although hacking started out as localized, relatively modest attacks on certain individuals or systems, as profiteers, organized cyber crime conglomerates, and nation-states have noticed the unique strategic advantage cyberattacks create, more and more notorious attacks have been happening. 

In many cases, hackers looking to get the respect of the hacking community have also launched high-profile attacks unilaterally, earning the respect of both cyber criminals and the public.

When Did Cyber Warfare Start? History of Cyber Warfare

Cyber warfare began in 2010 with Stuxnet, which was the first cyber weapon meant to cause physical damage. Stuxnet is reported to have destroyed 20% of the centrifuges Iran used to create its nuclear arsenal.

Then, between 2014 and 2016, Russia launched a series of strategic attacks against Ukraine and the German parliament. During the same period, China hacked 21.5 million employee records, stealing information from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

In 2017, the WannaCry attack impacted upwards of 200,000 computers in 150 countries. The attack targeted Windows computers with ransomware. Later in 2017, the NotPetya attack, which originated in Ukraine, destroyed files, resulting in more than $10 billion in damage.

The Most Notorious Cyberattacks in History

There have been countless cyberattacks throughout the years, but the following cyber warfare examples have had a significant impact on the cyberattack landscape, as well as how companies and countries defend themselves against attackers.

Robert Tappan Morris—The Morris Worm (1988)

Robert Tappan Morris made the first internet computer worm in history. He was a student at Cornell University. Although Mr. Morris claimed he did it to explore the size of the cyber space, it soon evolved into a virus that caused between $10 million and $100 million in damage repair costs.

MafiaBoy (2000)

A Canadian high schooler launched a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on several commercial sites, including big players like CNN, eBay, and Amazon. The hacks resulted in an estimated $1.2 billion of damage.

Google China Attack (2009)

In 2009, in an act of cyber espionage, hackers were able to get inside Google’s servers and access Gmail accounts belonging to Chinese human rights activists. Upon further investigation, authorities discovered that many Gmail accounts of people in different countries had been penetrated.

A Teenager Hacks the US Defense Department and NASA (1999)

A 15-year-old named Jonathan James was able to get inside the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) computers and install a backdoor within its servers. He then used the backdoor to intercept internal emails, some of which had usernames and passwords inside.

James then used his access to the DOD’s system to steal NASA software used to support the International Space Station.

Hacking a Radio Phone System to Win a Porsche (1995)

A man named Kevin Poulsen heard of a radio station contest where you could win a sports car. He ended up winning a Porsche 944 S2 by being the 102nd caller. He accomplished this feat by hacking the phone system, locking out other callers, ensuring his victory. He ended up getting sentenced to five years in prison.

The Future of Cyber Warfare: Best Practices for Prevention

Cyber warfare is likely to continue and grow, particularly because of the interconnected nature of people’s lives. In addition to business systems, entertainment, and social media, the infrastructural components of cities and countries are also dependent on networks. When hacked, these can become an Achilles' heel—a weak spot that would not otherwise exist, which creates tempting opportunities for cyber warfare soldiers and the organizations and countries that support them.

Even though the opportunities presented by cyber war are vast—and likely to inspire new methods of attack—organizations can do a lot to minimize the chance of being impacted by an attack:

  1. Use available tools. It is no coincidence that phishing scams have become popular. Phishing involves an attacker tricking someone into divulging sensitive credentials. Because companies have been using next-generation firewalls (NGFWs), web application firewalls (WAFs), intrusion detection and prevention systems, antimalware, and other tools, stealing login credentials has become a go-to option. Using the latest tools immediately takes your organization off the list of cyberattackers’ low-hanging fruit.
  2. Increase cyber awareness. You can use famous cyberattacks and their methodologies, as well as the most recent cybersecurity statistics, to educate employees about what to look out for. An event does not have to be the biggest cyberattack in history to hurt your organization. If employees know the signs and how to be cyber-responsible, you can significantly reduce the chances of a successful attack.
  3. Segment your networks. Some of the most dangerous cyberattacks were successful only because the networks they targeted were not properly segmented. Keep sensitive data and anything else attractive to cyber criminals separate from the rest of the network and each other. This way, an east-west spread of an attack will do less damage.

How Fortinet Can Help

The FortiGate Next-Generation Firewalls (NGFWs) give your network and its users advanced protections that can prevent a cyberattack from being successful. Also, because FortiGate NGFW is integrated with the Fortinet Security Fabric, you can set it up as a central element of your network, making it possible to manage traffic with a FortiGate NGFW, keeping all users and devices more secure.

FortiGate NGFWs use advanced packet inspection, powered by a dedicated security processor. They can prevent zero-day attacks, as well as all those indexed by FortiGuard, the Fortinet threat intelligence system. Recent cyberattacks show the damage a successful incursion can inflict. With a FortiGate NGFW in your cyber defenses, you can thwart even some of the most advanced attacks.


What is the biggest cyberattack in history?

The biggest cyberattack in history was arguably the Jonathan James attack on NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense in 1999, especially due to the fact that the attack compromised such trusted, high-profile organizations.

What is the most famous cyberattack?

The most famous cyberattack is the Google China hack in 2009.

Where did cyber warfare originate?

Cyber warfare may have originated in the United States when Americans supposedly took out Iranian nuclear facilities.