cyberwarfare’s new fronts
1. Unspeakable Spread
German hospitals haven’t just been fighting COVID-19 over the past year. At one point, cyberattacks against Deutschland’s health facilities were so serious that police believed ransomware had led to a patient’s death. While investigators eventually ruled that the patient would have died anyway, the incident highlighted that hackers have the ability to infiltrate every facet of our lives — even sacrosanct ones like health care. In 2019, cyberattacks ranked behind only climate change and ISIS as the most feared national threat, according to a global Pew Research poll that collected information from 26 nations, including South Africa and Japan. Businesses that were proactive against cyberattacks saved an average of $2 million on data breach costs, which explains why cyber specialists are in high demand, with growth in the sector far outpacing that of other occupations.
2. The Next El Chapo
Kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking — these are crimes we expect to see from billion-dollar Latin American crime syndicates. But now, Russian and Eastern European hackers are giving way to nefarious coders in regions like Brazil and Mexico. A malware called Amavaldo, which first harried financial institutions in Spain and Portugal, began attacking Brazilian banks, too, in 2019. Ploutus, a Mexican malware, has attacked ATMs, while ransomware in Colombia and Venezuela have been used to blackmail executives. That’s led to fears that major criminal organizations, like the Sinaloa Cartel, once led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, could make cybercrime a bigger part of their portfolios. Overall, Latin American banks lost $809 million in 2018, with 92 percent of them reporting digital security breaches.
3. Expensive Year
Hackers have also been refining an old trick. They install ransomware to hold an organization’s assets hostage, and the ransom can be steep. Cyber thieves demanded an average of $100,000 per attack in 2020, with record costs to companies, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. That led FBI officials to deem cyberattacks a national threat, with companies like Microsoft, Cisco and Amazon advocating for greater financial support and tighter oversight of cryptocurrencies often used by criminals to skirt traditional monetary systems.
4. Local Skirmishes
College students in Montana and California have had their data compromised in various attacks in recent years, while the cities of Atlanta and Baltimore saw their public utility systems crippled by RobbinHood ransomware attacks in 2019. Cities have turned out to be particularly vulnerable. They have small budgets and mountains of valuable information, from the data used to operate power grids to citizens’ personal data. Although federal governments can provide advice on how to handle these attacks, there won’t be meaningful change at the local level until citizens demand that elected leaders better protect their data.
5. Hackers Without Borders
No frontier is off-limits to hackers. Just take a look at the ones who mined Pfizer for COVID-19 data earlier this year. According to South Korean intelligence, North Korean hackers attempted to steal vaccine technology from the U.S. pharmaceutical giant. What makes the case more bizarre is that publicly, North Korea has established itself as a leader in COVID-19 denial. Even though the nation has yet to report a single case, it recently accepted 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. British officials are hoping that a new facility opened by global comms giant Viasat in the U.K. will help the nation stave off similar attacks and protect its COVID-related government services.
6. Hack the Vote
Opposition parties in India insisted in 2019 that the electronic voting machines used in the country, which is the world’s largest democracy, could be hacked. Some experts considered the voting machines vulnerable, while others pointed out that there’s only a risk if the machines are connected to the internet. Either way, this debate is likely to determine how we vote in the future, and could feed fraud fears that will undermine the credibility of democracy more broadly.
7. Breaching the Big Leagues
The bigger they are, the harder they fall. In 2020, Microsoft, Intel and other major tech firms and global governments were hit by a sophisticated attack inserted into software from SolarWinds and Microsoft. Likely emanating from Russia, the attack, in which the malware masqueraded as a routine Orion software update, affected 18,000 customers, including major U.S. federal government agencies. The Biden administration responded with a slew of new sanctions against Russia, but the damage was already done to the United States’ cyberdefense credibility.
8. Nuclear Head-Scratcher
The dangers of cyberwarfare were thrown into stark relief in 2010, when Iran’s nuclear sites were attacked by malware thought to have been launched by Israel and the U.S. The most perplexing part? The nuclear sites were offline, meaning the complex computer worm must have been delivered directly into the operating systems — an impressive, if terrifying, feat.