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Cyberwars Escalate With US NSA As "Crown Creators Of Cyberespionage"

Those who follow the constant barrage of geopolitical headline hockey might have noticed that this has been the year of the cyberattack. 

As we’re fond of chronicling, what started with an alleged attempt on the part of Kim Jong Un to sabotage a James Franco and Seth Rogen premier and what took a turn for complete absurdity when Penn State claimed Chinese hacker spies had taken control of the engineering department, turned rather serious with the OPM breach, the scope of which is still not fully understood. 

The incessant cyber espionage talk along with the creation (by Washington) of a kind of cyber “axis of evil” that of course includes all of the usual suspects including China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, has led directly to discussions of how to effectively conduct cyber warfare. The Pentagon laid out a somewhat vague strategy earlier this year and now WSJ has more on what’s being billed as a “digital arms race”: 

A series of successful computer attacks carried out by the U.S. and others has kicked off a frantic and destabilizing digital arms race, with dozens of countries amassing stockpiles of malicious code. The programs range from the most elementary, such as typo-ridden emails asking for a password, to software that takes orders from a rotating list of Twitterhandles.

 

The proliferation of these weapons has spread so widely that the U.S. and China—longtime cyber adversaries—brokered a limited agreement last month not to conduct certain types of cyberattacks against each other, such as intrusions that steal corporate information and then pass it along to domestic companies. Cyberattacks that steal government secrets, however, remain fair game.

 

In total, at least 29 countries have formal military or intelligence units dedicated to offensive hacking efforts, according to a Wall Street Journal compilation of government records and interviews with U.S. and foreign officials.

 

Some 50 countries have bought off-the-shelf hacking software that can be used for domestic and international surveillance. The U.S. has among the most-advanced operations.

 

In the nuclear arms race, “the acronym was MAD—mutually assured destruction—which kept everything nice and tidy,” said Matthijs Veenendaal, a researcher at the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, a research group in Estonia. “Here you have the same acronym, but it’s ‘mutually assured doubt,’ because you can never be sure what the attack will be.”

 

Governments have used computer attacks to mine and steal information, erase computers, disable bank networks and—in one extreme case—destroy nuclear centrifuges.

 

Nation states have also looked into using cyberweapons to knock out electrical grids, disable domestic airline networks, jam Internet connectivity, erase money from bank accounts and confuse radar systems, experts believe.

Amusingly, WSJ got a shot in at the Assad government because after all, now that anti-regime forces are on the run, it's all hands on deck with the Western media propaganda campaign:

“It’s not like developing an air force,” in terms of cost and expertise, said Michael Schmitt, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and part of an international group studying how international law relates to cyberwarfare. “You don’t need to have your own cyberforce to have a very robust and very scary offensive capability.”

 

For example, hackers aligned with the Syrian government have spied into the computers of rebel militias, stolen tactical information and then used the stolen intelligence in the ongoing and bloody battle, according to several researchers, including FireEye Inc.

Then there is the obligatory shot at the Russians:

Russian hackers have targeted diplomatic and political data, burrowing inside unclassified networks at the Pentagon, State Department and White House, also using emails laced with malware, according to security researchers and U.S. officials.

 

They have stolen President Barack Obama’s daily schedule and diplomatic correspondence sent across the State Department’s unclassified network, according to people briefed on the investigation. A Russian government spokesman in April denied Russia’s involvement.

 

“Russia has never waged cyberwarfare against anyone,” Andrey Akulchev, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said in a written statement Friday. “Russia believes that the cybersphere should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

And finally, there's a reference to the hilarious incident documented here earlier this year wherein Obama spied on Netanyahu only to discover that Netanyahu was spying on Obama:

Even Israel, a U.S. ally, was linked to hacking tools found on the computers of European hotels used for America’s diplomatic talks with Iran, according to the analysis of the spyware by a top cybersecurity firm. Israeli officials have denied spying on the U.S.

Here's an inforgraphic that shows which countries employ which specific types of cyber sabotage:

But the good news, as WSJ cheerfully reminds us, is that "many cybersecurity experts consider the U.S. government to have the most advanced operations [and the NSA to be] the crown creator of cyberespionage."

Which is great. Unless it's you they're spying on...