2012: The Year of Cold Cyber Warfare

2011 was an interesting year for information security. Institutions began to make much greater use of the Internet as a mechanism for obtaining and sharing information, including conducting operations against their enemies. Today, we are escalating towards a far darker cold cyber war era, 2012 is going to have a dark side.

In any war, forces normally take time to align and marshal. In the cyber world, the most powerful organisations have been doing this for years. They’ve reached a point where they are already capable of taking down opponents, with many boldly doing so, regardless of any formal declaration being made.

Anonymous led the charge for some time, it’s one of the few groups which does publicly announce its targets. By harnessing the power of social networks such as 4chan, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Twitter, Anonymous has been able to mobilise and leverage hacking skills that exist within its subgroups to spur social activism (or "hacktivism" based on popular media usage).

Last year its attacks focused on key institutions that threatened the organisation directly. In particular, HBGary Federal was targeted for threatening to oust members of Anonymous, and the FBI was singled out for arresting members. Since it first attracted interest in 2008 for attacks against the Church of Scientology, Anonymous has, if anything, continued to grow, its threats are now taken extremely seriously.

Wikileaks, while having taken some pretty severe knocks over past years, recently joined forces with Anonymous to publish the Stratfor email dump. This dump revealed how the 'global intelligence' firm has been building up a network of private informants for clients such as the US Department of Defense and other private parts of the military-industrial complex.

The Wikileaks Stratfor emails also reveal secret charges the US plans to bring against Julian Assange for his role in Cablegate, through which approximately 250,000 US Government Classified cables were published by Wikileaks, leaked from alleged source, Private Bradley Manning. The cables allegedly played a key role in the Tunisian revolution of 2010 to 2011, but even more interesting the suggestion that this isn't the first time Wikileaks has influenced regime change. It also claims it document released to Wikileaks influenced the 2007 Kenyan electoral crisis.

More recently, the United States has publicly denounced China as the primary source of cyber warfare attacks. Such attacks have been ongoing for many years, and although source attribution is difficult to guarantee, industry consensus and expert analysis link much of the activity to China. More damning is the assertion that such attacks are becoming part of that government's official policy and strategy to gain economic superiority.

Attacks such as the well-publicised "Operation Aurora" attack of mid-2009 and the RSA attack of early 2011 are some of the more public examples that raised US Federal Government concern. But these examples only scratch the surface; many more attacks are launched against US Government agencies, military-industrial complexes, and private sector corporations all the time, with most going unreported.

Australia's private industry has also been targeted. Rio Tinto, Fortescue Metals and BHP Billiton have each been hit in 2010. It is no secret that the Australian Government recognises the need to build up its information security capability to address such a threat.

Equally important is the effect of this war on the lives of every person on the planet. Citizens will demand answers about why their information is being sold and traded between criminal organisations, governments and corporations. Of all the cyber wars taking place right now, it is the war over privacy that is the most disturbing. The privacy war is being fought silently, and is being drowned out (deliberately it seems) by other news. Google's recent changes to its privacy policy barely raised a blip on the Australian public radar, yet insiders are in an uproar.

As we look into 2012, it seems reasonable to assume that the rate of attacks will accelerate, with publicity surrounding these attacks growing. As their impact extends to more countries and companies, it is only reasonable that citizens will push for more answers.

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