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Webinar digest: Cybersecurity for e-diplomats: Hype and reality

Published on 17 July 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Browse through the world’s weekly journals and you will face a number of articles discussing the fears of cyberwarfare with reference to attacks on Estonia or a Stuxnet virus attack on Iran, or analysing the economic consequences of cybercrime. Turn to the headlines and you will find cybersecurity at the top of the political agenda.

The threat from the internet: Cyberwar (The Economist). Will the apocalypse arrive online? (Le Monde Diplomatique). It’s cyber war… send for Dad’s Army (The Telegraph). Obama Meets With Xi Jinping, Says US, China Must Develop Cyber Rules (Huffington Post)…

Stories and worries are numerous: online child abuse, stolen credit cards and virtual identities, malware and viruses, botnets and denial of service attacks on corporate or government servers, cyber-espionage, the notion of cyberwar, and cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure including nuclear facilities and power supply networks… are they hype or reality?

Cyberthreats are real. Numerous cases certify this, those most commonly discussed being the attacks on Estonia which brought down the e-government and e-business services in 2007; on Georgia during the Russian-Georgia war in 2008; a Stuxnet virus which physically destroyed uranium-enrichment turbines in Iran in 2010; a private cyberwar between CyberBunker and Spamhaus of 2013 whose impact was possibly felt globally; or the alleged ongoing cyber-espionage of leading US industry by Chinese PLA.

Motives vary: from hacktivism (with political or ideological backgrounds, simple curiosity, or personal assertion), via crime (economic or other benefits), to espionage (industrial or intelligence), to terrorism, to warfare. Targets vary as well: from individuals (e.g. identity theft or malware infection), the corporate sector (especially small and medium enterprises and banks), government and public institutions (breaches of databases), to core Internet infrastructure (Internet service providers or Exchange points, or various data and fusion centres), to critical society infrastructure (like power grids, industry facilities or public traffic), to military assets.

The weapons and tools deployed for attacks on various targets, whatever the motive, coincide. They come as result of:

  • Software code flaws (operating systems like Windows but also Mac or Android, and various programmes and applications – even the anti-virus ones).
  • Protocol flaws (imperfections of the Domain Name System, inadequate setting of core equipment all over the Internet, and, ultimately, the fact that the core Internet protocols were initially built upon the notion of mutual trust).
  • Mind flaws (lack of awareness and knowledge by end users – their ignorance, negligence, and imprudence).

These flaws are then being misused to create malware – viruses, Trojans, and worms (Kaspersky Lab reports over 200 000 new malicious programmes every day). Malware penetrates  to end-user computers or other targets through social engineering attacks (like spam, scam, phishing, or even via USB memory keys). It infects millions of computers and hijacks them to create remote-controlled zombies (bots), organised in botnets, that can be used (and rented for as little as $10/hour) to further distribute spam or malware, temporarily bringing down targeted servers (through distributed denial of service or DDoS attacks), perform pay-per-click frauds, intellectual property theft, or massive ID thefts.

These cyberweapons are largely being developed by criminal structures – then made easily available for rent or purchase by almost anyone. Instead of primarily strengthening the international cooperation to fight these initial causes of cyber-threats, governments seem to increasingly turn to cyber-armament and militarisation through entrusting cybersecurity to their military commands (e.g. Cyber-command in the US Pentagon, Cyber Defence Operations Group at the UK Ministry of Defence, Cyber-warfare unit within Chinese PLA, Iranian Cyber Defense Command). This comes as a result of a lack of awareness and a lack of government resources to deal with the complexity of cyber issues (a multidisciplinary interplay of technical, legal, economic, sociocultural, developmental, and political aspects) and policy environment (a multistakeholder environment with inevitable roles of government institutions, but also the corporate sector, academia and non-governmental organisations) – as well as of the lobbying of the defence (and offence) industry to set up the paradigm of cyberspace as the ‘fifth fighting space’ (after land, sea, air, and space).

International cooperation for cybersecurity has, however, not yet lost the battle against militarisation of cyberspace. A number of ongoing diplomatic and policy fora (like the ITU, OSCE, G8, Commonwealth or the UN’s IGF) and international documents (like the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cyber-crime or OECD’s Guidelines for the Security of Information Systems and Networks) promise heightened diplomatic engagement in the forthcoming years to cooperate in resolving cyber-incidents, to fight cybercrime (and thereby prevent the mass development of cyberweapons), to establish the norms pertaining the state use of the Internet (including in relation to International Humanitarian Law), and – hopefully even – to negotiate global cyber-disarmament treaties.

We invite you to listen to the live recording of the webinar, (bellow) in which our host Vladimir Radunovic discusses these issues in more detail. You can also download the PowerPoint presentation in PDF format here.

The next online course on Cybersecurity starts on 7 October 2013. The application deadlines are 5 August (for the course accredited by the University of Malta) and 2 September (for the certificate course). For more information visit the course page.

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