A new Cold War is erupting between two old adversaries with cyber security at its heart.
After an appropriate amount of time has passed concepts from the past seem to reappear. Not in their former guise but updated, with a different cast and a slightly refined agenda. I’m led to believe that this process of ‘rebooting’ as its come to be known is a good thing. Not when it comes to war it isn’t, and especially when it’s starting to distinctly resemble The Cold War.
The original Cold War, as I’m going to refer to it as concluded just over 25 years ago with the collapse of the former Soviet Union, however within weeks of its silver anniversary stories emerged about the former adversaries of Russia and the USA starting to lock horns again. The Obama administration claimed that their intelligence agencies had evidence pointing to involvement of state sponsored Russian hackers attacking the Democratic National Committee and other political organisations of the Democratic Party. This activity resulted in thousands of stolen emails, which cast the Democratic Party and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a less than favourable light.
The popular belief, and one that the CIA announced to a group of US senators, was that this was done by the Russians to bolster the chances of Donald Trump becoming president.
Trump has denounced such claims labelling them ‘ridiculous’ and suggesting that this is just sour grapes on the part of his former opponent.
Mr Trump might be advised to read in detail the joint analysis report, published on December 29th, from the US Department of Homeland Security, that states that they have detected and can attribute malicious cyber activity by the Russian civilian and military intelligence Services (RIS) to compromise and exploit networks and endpoints associated with the U.S. election.
Russia has denied any such activity.
But here is the problem. This is cyber warfare which when undertaken in a strategic way leaves enough ambiguity and margin of error for it never to be proven beyond reasonable doubt in a way that more conventional warfare can be.
The techniques used in this attack include spearphishing campaigns targeting US government organisations, critical infrastructure entities, think tanks, universities, political organisations, and corporations, and theft of information from these organisations. The hackers tricked recipients into changing their passwords through a fake website that was designed by the Russians cyber actors to appear legitimate. The actors then used those credentials—the username and password—to access the network as if they were legitimate users.
Alongside the technical aspects of this attack and what brings me to make the parallel with the Cold War is the social engineering aspects of this attack. The original Cold War was a war of ideology, one of differing beliefs, between communism and capitalism, where the struggle for dominance was expressed through propaganda campaigns, rivalry at global sporting events and the technological advancements, such as the space race.
This new Cold War is using social engineering on a more personal scale.
Vladimir Putin, who has been at the beating heart of Russian political life since the late 1990’s and was Lieutenant colonel in the KGB as the Soviet Union collapsed, has publicly congratulated Trump on his win and prior to his victory referred to him as “absolutely the leader in the presidential race”. Trump, who has not hidden his praise for Putin who he refers to as doing “a great job”, is lapping up this praise from a global leader with a hard man image.
It cannot have failed to pass by anybody that Trump, a political novice, has an incredibly thin skin, taking to Twitter to rant about magazine publishers, actors, newscasters and generally anybody who upsets him. So, would it be plausible to think that Putin with his KGB and espionage background is engaging in social engineering techniques to become Trumps new best friend? If so, then it seems to be working as Trump has derided the findings of what will soon become his own intelligence agencies into the hacking claims.
How does Putin and Russia directly benefit from this? Well I must refer to a comment made at last year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival by former UK political heavyweight, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who openly referred to Putin as an ‘opportunist’, stating that as opposed to taking a strategic view he seeks out small advances as they arise. That probably sums up this new Cold War, “Cold War (Rebooted)”, will be a war of small advances, of hacks and leaks, of cyber attacks, investigations and denials. It will be one of public statements of mutual respect and collaboration between two self-appointed alpha males.
Like its predecessor this Cold War will be fought where no conventional shots are fired, only cyber shots. This will be a war of disruption, not destruction and in the long term that could be far more dangerous.