United States national security officials looking into Russian cyber-meddling of the recent elections are seeing that the recent “ransomware” cyber-attacks are part of an increasing problem. Hackers are now not just in the business of ransom but in chaos and disruption of the internet.
The goals are to disrupt signaling capabilities, disruption of normal systems and demonstrate the instability of the Western democracies. And some say it IS time to worry.
A number of analysts described the Petya/NotPetya incident of June and the WannaCry event in May as ransom attacks, aimed at gaining as much bitcoin as possible. But our analysis of cyber-coercion highlights how ransomware events such as the Petya are often strategically motivated and less about gaining funds than they are about sending a signal. The primary goal instead appears to be limited destruction through malware wiping systems.
North Korea and Russia are the likely originators of these attacks. What’s the motivation, beyond simply the chaos factor? For Russia, the Petya attack could be a means of encouraging the perception of Ukraine as a failed state — a view that aligns with Russian interests.
Cyber-operations amplify larger psychological warfare efforts. North Korea’s goal, most likely, could be to cause general chaos in Western systems, as a means of signaling strength — and its capacity to escalate in any future crisis.
In addition to propaganda, states use cyber-operations to influence elections and conduct disruption operations. Russian interference in the elections of Western states has become so common it is now expected. But instead of just disrupting elections, Russia now seems to be leveraging cyberespionage and propaganda to generate larger crises.
Russia now appears to be using Ukraine as more than a testing ground for cyberwar — it is demonstrating its ability to disrupt faith in public institutions. While the resulting crises after a cyber-event risk inadvertent escalation, the real danger is the erosion of cyber norms. With each new cyber-disruption, the shock decreases, and we grow to expect disorder. The resulting uncertainty and chaos undermines our trust in the open Internet architecture and risks upsetting stability inherent in cyber-exchanges to date.
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