As information technology advances and as the internet takes an increasingly important role in society through optimized communications, ecommerce, digital marketing, data storage and knowledge management, the vulnerability of information, systems and networks will also rise. As could be expected in this scenario, cyber crime has been taking a bigger role in international relations, disrupting business while generating tension and conflict between governments. Events have shown that the size or importance of the victim makes no difference to cyber criminals, and both companies and states have been targeted and remain at risk. The new role of cyber attacks as a weapon in interstate rivalries has created a new battlefront in the global geopolitical landscape. In this Insight, HuntSource examines the cyber security of the global geopolitical landscape, and what companies and governments should do to defend themselves from these attacks.


Cyber Security and International Conflict

Between 2011 and 2013, American banks and even the New York dam control systems were targeted by DDoS attacks from Iran. When negotiations to lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for an end to their nuclear weapons program began, these cyber attacks practically disappeared. But with the Iran nuclear deal now under threat by current US policy, the return of these kinds of attacks may be on the cards in the coming months.

In another significant 2013 event, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA had used metadata and telephone interception to spy on individuals and organizations, including American citizens,  and on foreign leaders as well. This embarrassing episode soured relations between the United States and some of its biggest allies for some time. While this was all done under the guise of fighting terrorism and keeping people safe, America’s foreign partners were not amused, with Germany and Brazil going as far as presenting a joint declaration at the United Nations condemning these practices.  

Plausible deniability in international cyber warfare has been a recurring topic, and it remains very tough to directly link nation states with specific hacker groups, who may or may not be independent ‘hacktivists’. 2016 saw allegations of Russian interference in the US presidential race. Prosecutors believe that the hacker group Fancy Bear was responsible for releasing sensitive staff emails from the Clinton campaign, while also sponsoring anti-Hillary propaganda on social media. Russia has denied government involvement in any hacking attempts, but curiously left open the possibility that ‘patriotic hackers’ acting on their own could have attempted to influence election results in response to important international events [referring to tension in Ukraine and Syria]. Wary of threats to national security, the US government has also undertaken to ban products and companies from certain countries – like Russian-based Kaspersky Labs and the Chinese firm Huawei – for fear that their software could contain secret backdoors that make it easier for hackers from these countries to move in and cause damage. However, banning specific countries or businesses won’t be enough to guarantee cyber safety because software development and hardware component production have become very much internationalized in the interest of cutting costs and maximizing efficiency in production.

Other factors to consider include the possibility of false flags and misdirecting attacks by hackers to frame certain countries, and direct links to governments in this case are equally tough to prove. At any rate, cyber warfare is a tool that even smaller and less powerful countries can use to level the playing field and cause damage to their perceived international rivals.


International Cyber Attacks on Business

Businesses are equally at risk when it comes to the international cyber threat, and the most famous example is the North Korean-sponsored attack on Sony PicturesWhen Sony decided to make a movie satirizing North Korea’s leader, the company suffered a vicious cyber attack which forced all of Sony’s businesses to go offline. When the smoke cleared, it was clear that almost all of the company’s information (along with 5 movies) had been stolen and 75% of it’s servers had been destroyed. While responsibility was claimed by the hacker group “Guardians of Peace”, a previous threat of massive retaliation had been made by the North Korean government should the film be released. In the end, Sony decided to scrap the theatrical release of the movie due to fears of terrorist attacks.  

The emergence of blockchain technology launched the international cryptocurrency craze and has been revolutionizing the exchange of money across borders. Many observers see this as a threat to traditional banking as we know it, capable of replacing interbank transfers (and their fees). The use of technology and peer-to-peer decentralized data storage to cut out the traditional middle man of international finance has understandably generated widespread appeal. So what’s holding back the new digital currencies from making international banking redundant? Cyber security. Hacked accounts on prominent trading platforms like Coinbase have led to massive losses, including to many investors who had the vision to see the value of cryptocurrencies early, leading to anger and frustration . In addition to dealing with the regular risk of asset price fluctuations, cryptocurrency investors also have to live in fear that their accounts will be hacked and their digital coins stolen. With digital wallets deemed unsafe for keeping large quantities of digital currency, many who invest heavily in Bitcoin, Ethereum and the like have been transferring their funds to physical hardware wallets akin to pen drives – the modern and anachronistic equivalent of stuffing money under the mattress. The obvious problem with this is that if you lose your hardware wallet, you lose all of your assets.


Cyber Security as a Deterrent

With the general mistrust and rising tensions in present-day geopolitics – from nuclearization in Iran and North Korea to bitter conflicts in Ukraine and Syria – it’s a safe bet to expect state sponsored or activist hacking attempts to continually grow in number and intensity. In this scenario, it’s crucial for companies and governments to have a strong information security strategy. Product certification and reverse engineering of software code can be a very effective, if time consuming and expensive ways to root out weaknesses that leave both hardware and software vulnerable to attack. Nevertheless, the clash between IT security innovation and new hacking methods will continue as the world economy becomes more digital. Continuing to actively hire qualified professionals that oversee the safety networks and databases, while pressing forward with greater investments to optimize cyber security outcomes will remain the greatest fortress against cyber attacks in the future.