The traditional approaches and technologies used to combat threats to national security have become outdated and ineffective in the digital age. Information is now as valuable as physical assets, with a nation’s digital footprint containing both public and personal information. Unfortunately, cyber and data espionage has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, posing a significant risk to sensitive information. Cyberattack vectors have tripled in the past five years, and malicious actors have become more sophisticated in their methods. The use of cyber warfare as a primary mode of attack is a growing concern, with almost every nation, regardless of its level of development or location, engaging in it. The dissemination of propaganda and disinformation through social media has added a new dimension to this unholy war.
There are several ways in which cyberattacks can harm a nation, including shutting down energy grids, disrupting air and ground traffic, planting spyware in critical systems, and hacking into financial institutions to steal sensitive information. If personal information is compromised, it could be used for profiling purposes by foreign agencies, jeopardising national security. Even the possibility of losing access to one’s bank accounts, emails, and social media accounts is a worrisome scenario.
The potential for cyber-attacks to cause severe damage has grown exponentially. The question arises whether cyber is the perfect weapon, given its ability to penetrate almost any system and remain undetected. Firstly, it is important to understand what is meant by “perfect weapon”. In traditional warfare, a perfect weapon would be one that is effective, efficient and has minimal collateral damage. It would also ideally be easily deployable and relatively easy to acquire. When it comes to cyber warfare, these same criteria can be applied. However, there are additional considerations that come into play due to the unique nature of cyber-attacks.
One of the key features of cyber warfare the perfect weapon is its ability to remain anonymous. Unlike conventional weapons, cyber-attacks can be carried out remotely without the need for physical access to the target. This makes it difficult to trace the attacker, which is an essential advantage for those looking to remain undetected. In 2017, the Wannacry ransomware attack affected over 200,000 computers in 150 countries, causing an estimated $4 billion in damage. Despite extensive investigations, the perpetrators of the attack have never been identified, highlighting the anonymity that cyber warfare provides.
Cyber attackers can exploit vulnerabilities in computer systems, including software bugs, weak passwords, and outdated operating systems. The Stuxnet virus, discovered in 2010, is a prime example of this. It was designed to target specific industrial control systems, causing physical damage to uranium enrichment facilities in Iran. This type of precision targeting is not possible with conventional weapons and highlights the unique capabilities of cyber warfare.
Cyber warfare is also cost-effective compared to conventional warfare. A conventional military operation requires a significant amount of resources, including personnel, equipment, and logistics. Cyber-attacks, on the other hand, can be carried out with a small team of skilled individuals and minimal resources. In 2014, a group of North Korean hackers targeted Sony Pictures Entertainment, causing significant damage to the company’s computer systems. The attack was estimated to have cost the hackers just $600,000, a fraction of what a conventional military operation would have cost. The ability to scale attacks is another key advantage of cyber warfare. Unlike conventional weapons, which have finite capabilities, cyber-attacks can be scaled to target thousands or even millions of systems simultaneously. In 2016, a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack targeting DNS provider Dyn caused widespread disruption to major websites, including Twitter, Amazon, and Netflix. The attack was carried out using a botnet made up of thousands of compromised devices, highlighting the ability of cyber attackers to scale attacks to a massive extent.
Despite the advantages of cyber warfare, there are still significant challenges to its effectiveness. One of the main challenges is attribution. Due to the anonymity of cyber-attacks, it can be difficult to identify the perpetrator accurately. This lack of attribution can limit the effectiveness of cyber warfare as a deterrent. Additionally, as countries become more aware of the potential threat of cyber-attacks, they are investing more resources in cybersecurity measures, making it more challenging for attackers to penetrate their systems.
Cyber warfare is considered a perfect weapon because it is stealthy, cost-effective, devastating, customisable, and carries no physical risk to the attackers. As cyber-attacks continue to increase in frequency and sophistication, it is clear that they will continue to be a significant threat to governments, businesses, and individuals alike. It is therefore essential that we continue to develop effective strategies to defend against cyber-attacks and mitigate their impact. As cyber threats continue to rise, it is imperative that we implement systems and mechanisms to protect both military and non-military digital and cyber domains in Pakistan.
We must carefully evaluate every aspect of our country’s digital footprint and take every possible step to secure it. Since cyber security is an ever-evolving field, we must remain extremely vigilant to stay ahead of potential threats.