The Public Eye with Eric Chabrow

Downed Airliner: Trigger for Cyber War?

Minimal Cyber-Attacks Seen as Ukraine, Gaza Conflicts Intensify
Downed Airliner: Trigger for Cyber War?

The downing of a Malaysian airliner by an anti-aircraft missile and air and land battles in Israel and Gaza raise concerns about whether these conflicts will expand to include cyber-attacks, perhaps even drawing other nations, including the United States, into a virtual battle with real-world consequences.

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But it's unlikely we'll see a ramping up of cyber-attacks - outside of isolated disruptions of websites.

Let's first look at the conflict in Ukraine, which pits the Ukraine government against Russia and its separatist allies.

When Russia invaded Crimea earlier this year, the head of Ukraine's security service reportedly said the country's telecommunications system had been attacked, with equipment installed in Russian-controlled Crimea used to impede the mobile phones of members of parliament (see Cyber's Role in Ukraine-Russia Conflict). But that apparently was the most damaging cyber-attack in the conflict.

The use of cyberwarfare in the Ukraine conflict will expand only if it helps the narrative of either side, advancing the agenda of political leaders to win the hearts of specific constituencies at home or abroad.

"Each side, to the extent that they're considering the use of cyberwar at all, wants the cyberwar to support the narrative because at this point the narrative is probably the most important thing going here," says Martin Libicki, senior management scientist at the Rand Corp., a national security think tank.

Libicki hasn't seen any evidence that Ukraine and Russia or its separatists allies have engaged in serious cyberconflict. That may be because such virtual battles are out of sight; cyber-attacks occurred but failed; the adversaries sought to limit the conflict; or "both sides found cyber as a weapon isn't what it's cracked up to be," he says.

Lesson Learned

That's what the Russians might have learned when, reportedly, they tried to wage an attack against the Ukraine election system that, if successful, would have allowed the Russians to declare that the winner was a fascist.

"That would have been a cyber-attack in clear support of a narrative," Libicki says. "That narrative would have said, 'See, these Ukrainians really are fascists.' Nobody in the West would have bought it because we know how to balance elections with election polls. But that doesn't matter so much for the Russians, as long as their people accepted it. And so, a cyber-attack by Russia on Ukraine that does not support that narrative may not be particularly useful."

Another deterrent to the use of cyber-attacks is the principle of mutually assured destruction that kept the United States and the Soviet Union at bay during the Cold War because of the fear a nuclear attack could set off a global conflagration.

That's why Russia hasn't used cyber to disrupt Ukraine's natural gas pipelines and vice versa. "Disruption of Russian pipeline would bring with it the disruption of a Ukrainian pipeline," says Paul Rosenzweig, founder of homeland security consultancy Red Branch Consulting and former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security. "Despite all of the fears about nation-state critical infrastructure attacks ... what you see is the equivalent of a cyber cold war."

For other nations, including the U.S., to be drawn into the conflict would require one or both sides to cause disruption to infrastructure through a cyber-attack. But with nothing for the Russians or Ukrainians to gain from such attacks, pulling other nations into the conflict is remote.

Social Media Battlefield

For the moment, at least, it appears that any potential battling in cyberspace would be mostly propaganda advanced through social media, trying to score points for their respective cause.

We've seen a bit of that already. At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Powers says Ukrainian separatists boasted of shooting down a plane on social media but later deleted the post after learning the aircraft carried civilians. It served the separatists objectives when they thought the downed jet belonged to the Ukrainian military, but not when they discovered the missile attack killed nearly 300 passengers and crew.

In the Israeli-Gaza conflict, Hamas loyalists sent text messages to Israelis' mobile phones, purportedly from Israeli security services, warning: "Rocket from Gaza hit petrochemical plant in Haifa, huge fire, possible chemical leak, advised to evacuate Haifa." Although there was no attack or huge fire, the fake message could have caused frayed nerves.

Isaac Ben-Israel, head of the Tel Aviv University's Yuval Neeman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security, tells the Times of Israel that cyberattacks against Israel have grown by 900 percent since the latest Israel and Hamas conflict.

Around the same time that Israeli ground troops entered Gaza on July 17, Israeli hackers took down a number of prominent Hamas and Islamic Jihad websites, according to the Jerusalem Post. The sites either crashed or showed error messages.

From a cyberwar-perspective, this is about as bad as it will get for now. Hamas' cyber-attacks likely wouldn't be any more effective against Israeli infrastructure than the thousands of missiles it has launched against Israel. Although Israel, no doubt, has the technical wherewithal to cause great destruction via cyber-attacks if it wanted to, there really isn't much critical infrastructure that could be destroyed in Gaza that the Israelis haven't already demolished with kinetic weaponry.

The conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East likely won't include serious cyber-attacks. There's really no need for them.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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