• The art of cyberwar

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    Cyberwarfare, as defined by techtarget.com, is “Internet-based conflict involving politically motivated attacks on information and information systems.”

    Cyberattacks can “disable official websites and networks, disrupt or disable essential services, steal or alter classified data, and cripple financial systems—among many other possibilities.”

    From the realm of science fiction, cyberwarfare has jumped to the real world. What is frightening is that we are all potential victims.

    Recent events give us a preview of the crippling effects of a full-scale cyberwar. It began early this month, when North Korea warned Sony Pictures Entertainment against releasing The Interview, a low-brow comedy about a plot to assassinate its supreme ruler, Kim Jong Un. Days later Sony’s computer system was hacked, and highly sensitive company information leaked out. The hacking forced Sony to cancel the movie’s release.

    US President Barack Obama admonished Sony for giving in to intimidation. “If we set a precedent in which a dictator in another country can disrupt through cyber, a company’s distribution chain or its products, and as a consequence we start censoring ourselves, that’s a problem,” Mr. Obama said, without making a direct reference to Kim or North Korea.

    He made it clear, however, that the US will retaliate. “They caused a lot of damage. And we will respond,” Mr. Obama said. “We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.”

    Last Tuesday, North Korea’s Internet went offline. The outage lasted for nine hours and 31 minutes. Pyongyang never fully explained the cyberblackout or blamed anyone for it.

    The skirmishes didn’t end there. On Christmas Day, Playstation and Xbox players found themselves unable to go online for their favorite games. Playstation is Sony’s game console, and Xbox is Microsoft’s. A group of hackers calling themselves the Lizard Squad claimed responsibility for the attack.

    Still, some gamers see a connection between the Playstation and Xbox hack and the furor over The Interview.

    One gamer writing on a PlayStation community forum message board blamed “that darn movie.” Another likened the attack to “a semi (truck) driver intentionally jackknifing his rig on a busy interstate and shutting down traffic for a few hours.”

    On Saturday, Pyongyang let loose a barrage against Mr. Obama, saying he “always goes reckless in words and deeds like a monkey in a tropical forest.” It also issued a stern threat: “If the US persists in American-style arrogant, high-handed and gangster-like arbitrary practices despite (North Korea’s) repeated warnings, the US should bear in mind that its failed political affairs will face inescapable deadly blows.”

    The US no doubt is not taking the threat lightly. An American computer expert believes North Korea has either raised an army of homegrown computer hackers or maintains a corps of cybermercenaries. This gives it the capability to play the aggressor in cyberspace.

    techtarget.com says the most effective protection against cyberattacks “is securing information and networks. Security updates should be applied to all systems —including those that are not considered critical— because any vulnerable system can be co-opted and used to carry out attacks.”

    That’s easier said than done. The cyberattacker has the advantage of choosing how and when to strike. The target could be anything from a military installation to a research facility to a financial institution. And the damage in terms of destroyed or compromised information could be massive enough to immobilize an entire state.

    Ignoring Pyongyang’s threat, Sony over the weekend decided to let The Interview screen in several US theaters and make it available online.

    Expect the cyberwar to escalate soon.

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