How might the blitzkrieg of the future arrive? By air strike? An invading army? In a terrorist’s suitcase? In fact it could be coming down the line to a computer near you.
Operation Locked Shields, an international military exercise held last month, was not exactly your usual game of soldiers. It involves no loud bangs or bullets, no tanks, aircraft or camouflage face-paint. Its troops rarely even left their control room, deep within a high security military base in Estonia.
These people represent a new kind of combatant – the cyber warrior.
One team of IT specialists taking part in Locked Shields, were detailed to attack nine other teams, located all over Europe. At their terminals in the Nato Co-operative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, they cooked up viruses, worms, Trojan Horses and other internet attacks, to hijack and extract data from the computers of their pretend enemies.
The idea was to learn valuable lessons in how to forestall such attacks on military and commercial networks. The cyber threat is one that the Western alliance is taking seriously.
It’s no coincidence that Nato established its defence centre in Estonia. In 2007, the country’s banking, media and government websites were bombarded with Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks over a three week period, in what’s since become known as Web War I. The culprits are thought to have been pro-Russian hacktivists, angered by the removal of a Soviet-era statue from the centre of the capital, Tallinn.
DDOS attacks are quite straightforward. Networks of thousands of infected computers, known as botnets, simultaneously access the target website, which is overwhelmed by the volume of traffic, and so temporarily disabled. However, DDOS attacks are a mere blunderbuss by comparison with the latest digital weapons. Today, the fear is that Web War II – if and when it comes – could inflict physical damage, leading to massive disruption and even death.