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Studies 15 December, 2013

Cyber Attacks: The Electronic Battlefield

Khaled Walid Mahmoud

Khaled Walid Mahmoud is an assistant researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. Having worked as an editor and a news desk manager at Yahoo!, his research interests are focused on political activism through social and digital media. He has been a researcher with the Civitas program, monitoring public opinion among diaspora Palestinians and a research associate with Professor Nathan Brown, examining the political participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. His articles have appeared in a number of print and on-line media, as well as in peer-reviewed journals. He is the author of two Arabic books, Social Media and the Dynamics of Change in the Arab World (2011); and The Present and Future Realities of Israeli Security (2007). He holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in International Relations, both from the University of Jordan.

Introduction

In recent years, the notion of cyberspace as a battlefield has gone through a number of interesting developments, foremost of which is the devastating effect of cyber attacks devised by states, groups, and individuals. Hacking, a worrisome phenomenon for both governments and individuals, is the most prominent form of attack. At the root of this worry lies the different parties involved and the difficulty not only in tracking its sources, but also in locating its bases and assessing the cost of its effect. The World Wide Web has now become an arena for conflicts involving espionage, unauthorized entry, and control of databases that might impinge on some states national security. In light of these developments, most governments have prioritized the issue of cyberspace, and have focused on developing mechanisms of preventative action.

Most of the world’s productive, intangible, and informational services have come to exclusively rely on the Internet. This process began in the 1990s with the shift of mass communication to the Internet and the ever-growing demands on it in the fields of production, distribution, communications, and finance. Such heavy reliance on the Internet makes the potential damage from cyberattacks even greater. These attacks have proliferated and take on a broader scope in a world where the Internet remains unsecure and easy to hack, particularly because of recent software and hardware developments. Savvy IT hackers, who take down highly critical websites to steal personal and private data from individuals and institutions—most seriously, of course, data from financial and military institutions have also become increasingly active. They hack institutions to deliver messages of political protest, amass documents and secrets, or sometimes make money. Beyond the inherent threats, the real danger lies in not knowing their capabilities and being unable to predict their actions.[1]

Cyberattacks have become a powerful, low-cost option of warfare. The world is facing forces armed with computer technology capable of hacking their way in and create virtual damage that materially hurts others with the click of a button. Recent incidents, virtual and real, have shed light on the new domain of cyberattacks, especially after those launched by Anonymous,[2] an international network of hackers. Anonymous has targeted global and Middle Eastern targets, including Israel. On account of these attacks, it seems that the conflict between these players is taking the form of attack and counterattack against facilities and systems in various fields on both fronts of this conflict, creating intangible material damage. Estimates vary as to the extent of this damage and its effect on civil and military institutions’ financial and technological activities and programs.

The phenomenon of cyberattacks has produced a host of challenges. This analysis attempts to comprehensively describe the “operational” element of cyberattacks and deal with the notion of cyberspace. It concentrates on hackers, especially those within Anonymous, as one of the main contenders within the conceptual cyber realm. The final section focuses on Israel and examines the attack against it on April 7, 2013, as well as the country’s efforts to create strategic defenses in cyberspace.

This paper also aims to give a clear picture of the new cyber environment. The ability to deal with it successfully has become a pivotal matter for states who must use this knowledge to reformulate the lexicon of security and technological systems in the information age. Its importance stems from the fact that cyberattacks represent a guide that can aide them in understanding how to adequately deal with their implications in the physical world. Cyberattacks are to be added to the list of conventional threats facing states, groups, and individuals alike, and have the ability to affect individual countries or the world, “particularly in light of the growing role of cyberspace in various fields, and the greater reliance being placed upon it by individuals, political groups, and governmental bodies. This increases the strategic importance of these mechanisms [for cyberattacks] and their effectiveness in meeting the aims of users.”[3]


*This study was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.

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 [1] Verwoerd, “Honours Report,” p. 12.

[2] The Anonymous collective is considered the most influential group of hackers in the history of hacking. There is no information on their total number or the number of sub-groups. They have carried out well-known operations, including their support for the WikiLeaks site. These groups have caused many problems around the world. To date, they have attacked the websites of multinational corporations; intervened in the 2009 Iranian elections; attacked Australian government websites in demand of completely uncensored browsing; and leaked personal data on public figures in Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan. The Arab Spring was also an arena of intensive activity, as the group offered immediate help to the popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt by attacking government websites in the two countries. Some analysts have praised them as digital warriors, while others have condemned them as an army of computer anarchists. See Abu Talib, “Anonymous: Political Hacktivism,” January 1, 2012.

[3] Ali, “Virtual Activists: E-clashes,” June 10, 2013.