Qatari websites hacked: As cyber warfare gains prominence, countries may be at risk without even realising it

Though cyber warfare has allowed countries to carry out their operations at a faster pace and in larger areas using deceit as weapon, like every technology it has also gotten out of hand

Tara Kartha July 19, 2017 20:21:35 IST
Qatari websites hacked: As cyber warfare gains prominence, countries may be at risk without even realising it

The reports of 'fake news' cyber attack on Qatari news agencies and the vehement denial by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), brings to mind one of PG Wodehouse’s iconic characters. When caught red handed at some underhanded deal by his aristocratic sister, the trembling Lord Emsworth was advised to stick to the policy of "stout denial" and admit nothing. The policy worked well for the embattled peer, but probably won’t for the royals who head the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Somebody has spilt the beans.

It may be recalled that late in the night of 21 May, 2017 hackers planted a story on Qatar state television which showed the Emir of Qatar addressing a military graduation ceremony. While the audio was suppressed, an online ticker alleged that the Emir had expressed support for Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Israel, and worse, prophesied a short tenure for the Trump presidency.

Qatari websites hacked As cyber warfare gains prominence countries may be at risk without even realising it

Representational image. Reuters

The Qatar News Agency’s Twitter account was also briefly hacked, where remarks were attributed to the foreign minister calling for removal of ambassadors from various Gulf countries. Qatar immediately denied that any such remarks were made, but the story was picked up by Arab news channels, leading to a virtual storm of criticism. Worse, Saudi Arabia and UAE then blacked out all Qatari TV news channels — including Al Jazeera — ensuring that the denials by the Qatari government of any such remarks quite literally fell on deaf ears. If the intention was to create a crisis, it succeeded. About two weeks later, the Saudi-led alliance announced what was in effect, a modern day blockade on Qatar.

It is now reported that the whole sorry tale did start from the UAE, as Qatar had alleged all the while. The Washington Post reported that US intelligence agencies were able to home in on a 23 May meeting meeting of senior UAE officials, where the plan to hack into Qatar’s national Television was probably made. While the jury is still out on whether the UAE was directly responsible — or instigated it — what is notable is the use of cyberspace to create conditions necessary to pressure a country and create near-war conditions.

To most of us, the threat of cyber war seems faintly incredible. While the jargon of the cyberage like bots, worms, blackhats and whitehats are now part of our conversation, the fact that it could actually be part of war making, still seems part of Hollywood popcorn. But cyber warfare is already out there, and has been, for some time. The Stuxnet virus that was induced into the Iranian nuclear program was detected way back in 2010, after it had attacked at least 15 Iranian facilities including the Bushehr unit, which reportedly damaged 984 centrifuges. The attack virtually put paid to Iranian nuclear ambitions for several years.

The source of the attack was never traced, though Edward Snowden was quoted as saying that it had been a joint US-Israeli effort. As analysts studied the virus, it was realised that it had infected several hundred thousand computers through a Windows OS programme, but did not cause damage elsewhere, because that was not what it was designed to do. So that’s the two worst things of a cyber attack. Finding its source is a hundred times difficult than the proverbial needle in the haystack. At least, the haystack is a physical, and a given entity. Notice that the CIA did not "trace" the source of the hacking on Qatar to UAE. What it did apparently find, however, was evidence of a meeting of officials.

More recently, another cyber attack was waged in a near war-like situation. In 2014, the situation in Ukraine began to climb into violence as the pro-Russian president was removed following the Euromaidan protests. Soon after, Russian special forces were said to have infiltrated into Crimea, and later effectively annexed it. As Russian speaking populations in other parts of Ukraine also began to “rebel” and the situation worsened, a severe cyber attack hit the power grid leaving around 700,000 homes in the area of Ivano-Frankvisk without electricity. The date was 23 December, the height of winter when the temperature drops to minus four. Researchers linked it to a malware called “Black Energy” that was designed to prevent computers from rebooting. This was the first attack on a country’s energy system, and it was the first known systematic attack on a country as part of a war effort.

A year later, it emerged that the ‘good guys’ were also engaged in cyber warfare against the most violent group of this century, the Islamic State. In 2016, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced what was the first wartime assignment of the country’s Cyber Command. While no details were released, experts note that this could be waged on two fronts.

First is a world wide, relatively open US-led effort to counter the extremely sophisticated messaging that the Islamic State uses to recruit young Muslims to fight for an Islamic Caliphate. That effort is mostly tied to counter-messaging, where the weaknesses and the failures of the Islamic State are highlighted, and sometimes invented.

While experts claim that terrorist recruitment dropped from 2,000 a month to barely 500, it must be kept in mind that the reverse would have been the case if Islamic State had continued its victorious grabbing of territory. The crux of this effort is therefore still tied to military success on the battlefield, where the Islamic State is credibly seen as failing in its tall claims.

A second cyber effort may have directly led to crippling of the Islamic State war machine. Attacks have been launched on the Islamic State computer network that purportedly included false messages to and from commanders, thus leading Islamic State forces into a trap, where they were killed from the air or by 'allies' on the ground. The other hints that were dropped were about cyber attacks against financial networks and the entire communications effort of the group. Whether or not such efforts worked is unclear. But discreet publicity would well have worked its way into the Islamic State command system and its "trust" factor. On the US side, it meant more money for large corporations like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and others who had all jumped on the "cyber" gravy train.

There is clearly a downside to the use of this new arm of warfare. In June this year, a huge cyber attack, originating from Ukraine spread across much of the world. In Kiev, technicians had to shift to manual overdrive to monitor radiation at the damaged Chernobyl nuclear site while shipping companies like Maersk and drug companies in the US scrambled to respond. It emerged that the attack used the same hacking tools used earlier (May 2017) in the “Wanna Cry” attack, which was derived from hacking tools originating from the National Security Agency of the United States. It seemed that the worm had quite literally turned. As with the nuclear genie, which slipped out from US shores, it is now open season for cyber criminals and warriors.

As technology moves forward, it is tempting to see cyber war as the “new” form of war that will swiftly replace tanks, aircraft and artillery guns that still form the nucleus of a country’s battle readiness. As indicated above, this is far from the truth. To win, you still need to hold ground, or allow your ally to do so. Cyber warfare can help you get there, but as of now, it is just another medium through which war can be fought for a larger objective.

So, what is the objective of what analysts call the "new age warfare" of the present? It is certainly true that technology has changed the way we fight. The skill of the charioteer has given way to the brain of the supercomputer, but it still hasn’t changed the basics of war. A war has been and will always be a duel between two or more sides, where one side will seek to compel the other to accede to its demands. At all times in history, this compellence has involved using all available weapons including espionage, psychological warfare, and quite simply the strategic use of deceit. Cyber warfare allows one to do all the above, faster and in a far greater area. The trouble is, as with all new technologies, that it has got out of hand. When the Vedic warrior found that his brand new arrows made from the finest of bamboo and iron heads had been rudely replicated by the opposing side, his generals would have hastened to invest the best possible shields for the defense of their king. This is exactly the present state of the cyber realm. The only difference is that the arrows are raining in from all directions with the shield being pierced even before it is invented. So, it is not war that has changed. The challenge is detecting that you are at war, long before a bullet has even been loaded by either side.

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