Why the Sony Hack Is the Start of Endless Cyber-War

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2014-12-29 Print this article Print
Endless Cyberwar

The Sony Pictures hack marks the start of an endless cycle of cyber-war that will become a permanent fixture of international relations for the following reasons.

1. It's an equalizer between nations.

The conflict between the United States and North Korea is a perfect example of hacking as an equalizer between nations of immensely different strengths. The United States is a global superpower with powerful allies, control of the international financial system and the world's most heavily funded military. North Korea is a two-bit dictatorship that uses Orwellian methods to control a population kept on the brink of starvation. Yet the Internet enables the weaker country to attack the stronger one. In fact, the vulnerability is almost entirely on the American side. Because hardly anything in North Korea is computerized and there are no major private companies or other inviting targets aside from government institutions, the country is mostly safe from a crippling attack.

2. You can't prove who did it.

The fact that governments can deny involvement enables them to have it both ways. They can "send a message," retaliate or attack a rival government that will know or believe that the adversary government did it while, at the same time, presenting themselves domestically as being above the hacks. The North Korean response was a textbook case. The government claims that not only that they did not hack Sony Pictures but that fans of the North Korean regime did it. Both those claims play well domestically.

3. Cyber-attacks can easily be freelanced and outsourced.

Cyber-war is like espionage. It takes place in the shadows, where deniability exists. Just as in the spy game where locals are recruited to do much of the actual spying, cyber-war attacks can be secretly farmed out to independent individuals or groups. Even perpetrators of attacks don't need to know who's paying them. Top people in key positions in government are on a need-to-know basis—and hardly anyone needs to know.

4. Cyber-attacks can harm rivals financially.

Just as the United States uses sanctions and other financial means to punish foreign rivals for international behavior it doesn't like, any nation can punish their rivals financially through cyber-war. Assuming that North Korea was really behind the Sony Pictures hack, it was a financial punishment for challenging that government's propaganda machine and the divinity myth of the Korea leader. Future cyber-war attacks will try to cripple financial markets and perhaps trigger inflation, panic and other economic problems.

5. Hack attacks are the easiest way to conduct old-fashioned espionage.

As the Sony Pictures hack suggests, a major cyber-attack involves stealing everything from the target before destroying it. You'll get more and better intelligence using hackers for spying than spies on the ground in most cases. Much of that intelligence is about understanding which targets to hit and how to hit them.

Now that North Korea believes the United States attacked them, they will want to retaliate even more. That attack will likely engender a politically necessary counter-attack and the cyber-war will continue that way forever.

It's important to note that sophisticated cyber-attacks take months or years to develop and prepare. So the rivals in cyber-attacks need to build sustained cyber-war campaigns, and they need to prepare their retaliation well in advance of the attacks they'll be retaliating against.

The Sony Pictures hack is more than just the worst cyber-attack on any corporation ever. It's the beginning of a new era of endless cyber-war.



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