Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Cyberwar hits Ukraine

By Peter Bergen and Tim Maurer
updated 10:09 AM EST, Fri March 7, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ukrainian officials say phone services of members of parliament were targeted
  • Authors: Cyberattack was also reported before Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008
  • They say attacks are easier than conventional warfare but can provoke counterattacks
  • Bergen, Maurer: U.S. had a lead in cyberwarfare but that is likely to ebb

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Tim Maurer is a research fellow at New America focusing on cyberspace and international affairs.

(CNN) -- Ukrainian security officials are complaining that unknown attackers are interfering with the mobile phone services of members of Ukraine's parliament, making difficult political decisions about what to do about Russia's incursion last week into Crimea that much harder.

The head of Ukraine's security service said on Tuesday, "I confirm that an IP-telephonic attack is underway on mobile phones of members of Ukrainian parliament for the second day in row."

This is reminiscent of the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on Georgia that preceded Russia's invasion of the country in August 2008. The attacks shut down several websites of Georgia's government including the president's.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

While the Kremlin denied any involvement, Georgian officials accused Russia of being behind the attacks.

Of course, just as some states have exploited offensive cyber capabilities for their own purposes, so too has the United States.

Cyberattacks are double-edged swords. Compared to mounting a conventional war they cost little in terms of blood and treasure. However, in the long run they may have larger unintended consequences if more and more nation states and even private groups use cyberwarfare capabilities.

The Stuxnet malware that was discovered in 2010 showed the potential of cyberattacks. The joint U.S.-Israeli operation demonstrated how the nuclear enrichment facility of Natanz in Iran could be effectively disrupted using a cyberattack that interfered with Iranian centrifuges' capacity to enrich uranium.

Cyberattacks hitting close to home
Snipers attack U.S. electrical grid
Israel's cyberdefense training gym

The level of sophistication of the malware was unprecedented and affected the facility even though it was "air gapped" -- disconnected -- from the public Internet.

Last month came the news that Obama national security officials have debated since 2011 whether to target Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria with cyberattacks.

The upside: No American boots on the ground and some potentially significant harm could be done to al-Assad's military capabilities.

The downside: What about unknown risks? Might such attacks embolden Syrian allies like Iran and Russia to launch cyber-counterattacks against targets in the U.S.?

The Stuxnet attack on Iran was not an isolated event. A January report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies points out that Iran "is the likely source of a recent series of incidents aimed at Gulf energy companies, American banks, and Israel. The most important involved a major disruption involving the destruction of data on computers used by (oil giant) Saudi Aramco...."

The Syrian Electronic Army, a group that supports the al-Assad regime, showed the potential to undermine trust in the financial system when it hacked The Associated Press's Twitter account last year to falsely report an attack on the White House, which caused the Dow Jones to drop by 150 points.

While technically not comparable to Stuxnet and its effect was only temporary -- the White House quickly refuted the reporting -- it nevertheless demonstrates the existence of a tool for shadowy organizations to influence events that did not exist before.

These recent incidents underscore both the scope and the significant differences among cyberthreats:

-- The actions by the Syrian Electronic Army did not cause a physical effect; they changed data and the content of The Associated Press's reporting.

-- The disruption at Saudi Aramco was due to the destruction of computer data, but it did not cause a physical effect either.

--Stuxnet, on the other hand, had a physical impact making Iranian uranium enrichment centrifuges spin at a rate they were not supposed to.

The DDoS attacks that appear to be happening in Ukraine right now, and the type of cyberattack that the U.S. launched against Iran that could at some point happen in some other form against Syria, raise significant moral and legal issues.

In many ways the cyberwarfare issue is akin to the issue of the use of armed drones, which greatly reduce the number of deaths that would result from a conventional armed conflict.

Whoever launches a drone attack or a cyberattack pays no costs of the kind that would typically take place on a conventional battlefield. You can't shoot down a drone pilot or kill a computer technician launching some kind of cyberattack thousands of miles from the intended target.

For this reason drones and cyber capabilities can also make conflict more likely as the barriers to entry to engage in either drone warfare or cyberconflict are so low. Moreover, there is a risk that the use of drones or cyber capabilities can escalate into a conventional armed conflict.

Similarly to the case of armed drones, the United States has had a large lead in its ability to mount effective offensive cyberattacks, but that advantage is unlikely to last. And since the United States is the only superpower and among the most technologically advanced (as well as most vulnerable), it must lead by example and harden cybersecurity at home and contribute to international agreements to govern the use of these powerful new tools.

These tools that will only get more powerful as the world becomes more connected and ever-more dependent on computers.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 8:35 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT