Arming for Virtual Battle: The Dangerous New Rules of Cyberwar

The main target of the attack was the website Spamhaus.org, a project that has been hunting down the largest distributors of spam on the Web since 1998. Its blacklists of known spammers enable other providers to filter out junk email. By providing this service, the organization has made powerful enemies and has been targeted in attacks several times. But the current wave of attacks overshadows everything else. In addition to shutting down Spamhaus, it even temporarily affected the US company CloudFlare, which was helping fend off the attack. Analysts estimate the strength of the attack at 300 gigabits per second, which is several times as high as the level at which the Estonian authorities were "fired upon" in 2007. The attack even affected data traffic in the entire Internet. A group called "Stophaus" claimed responsibility and justified its actions as retribution for the fact that Spamhaus had meddled in the affairs of powerful Russian and Chinese Internet companies.

Civilian forces, motivated by economic interests, are playing cyberwar, and in doing so they are upending all previous war logic.

A Question of When, Not If

A field experiment in the US shows how real the threat is. To flush out potential attackers, IT firm Trend Micro built a virtual pumping station in a small American city, or at least it was supposed to look like one to "visitors" from the Internet. They called it a "honeypot," designed to attract potential attackers on the Web.

The trappers installed servers and industrial control systems used by public utilities of that size. To make the experiment setup seem realistic, they even placed deceptively real-looking city administration documents on the computers.

After only 18 hours, the analysts registered the first attempted attack. In the next four weeks, there were 38 attacks from 14 countries. Most came from computers in China (35 percent), followed by the US (19 percent) and Laos (12 percent).

Many attackers tried to insert espionage tools into the supposed water pumping station to probe the facility for weaknesses. International law does not prohibit espionage. But some hackers went further than that, trying to manipulate or even destroy the control devices.

"Some tried to increase the rotation speed of the water pumps to such a degree that they wouldn't have survived in the real world," says Trend Micro employee Udo Schneider, who categorizes these cases as "classic espionage."

"There is no question as to whether there will be a catastrophic cyber attack against America. The only question is when," says Terry Benzel, the woman who is supposed to protect the country from such an attack and make its computer networks safer. The computer specialist is the head of DeterLab in California, a project that was established in 2003, partly with funding from the US Department of Homeland Security, and offers a simulation platform for reactions to cyber attacks.

Benzel's voice doesn't falter when she describes a war scenario she calls "Cyber Pearl Harbor." This is what it could look like: "Prolonged power outages, a collapse of the power grid and irreparable disruptions in the Internet." Suddenly, food would not reach stores in time and cash machines would stop dispensing money. "Everything depends on computers nowadays, even the delivery of rolls to the baker around the corner," she says.

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