UPDATE, 3/30: The accelerating threat of cyber-\attacks hit mainstream media yesterday, with a lead profile on 60 Minutes and a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times. Lesley Stahl focused on the Conficker worm, lurking in the heart of computers around the world and set to ask for new instructions on April 1 (previously written about by The Daily Beast’s Mark McKinnon). The Times focused on a new study coming of the University of Toronto that exposes a Chinese cyberespionage ring known as Ghostnet, which has infiltrated computers in 103 countries, with particular attention given to computer systems used by the Dalai Lama. These are just the latest wake-up call in this rapidly emerging new front of cyberattacks–and both pinpoint the sources of this new threat: China and Russia. Last month, I gave an overview of the problem, hooked on the cyberthreat du jour–Russia’s strong-arming of Kyrgyzstan and its unprecedented geopolitical impact on the in-country U.S. air base used for the Afghanistan escalation. Watch this space–cyberattacks are snowballing and may soon be hitting a computer near you.
Could a cyberattack in an obscure Asian nation have derailed America’s military mission in Afghanistan?
Kyrgyzstan. The name of the landlocked central Asian republic doesn't roll off the tongue. But it might have just provided the first evidence of cyberattacks' success in changing international policy—with vast implications for the Obama administration's escalation of troops in Afghanistan.
Internet cyberattacks are on the rise–weapons of mass disruption used by adversaries cloaked in anonymity that can prove temporarily crippling to a country's electronic infrastructure.
If cyberattacks have proven their success in the world of realpolitik, expect more as an ugly era unfolds.
In January of this year, Kyrgyzstan was the victim of a little-noted but sustained cyberattack that overwhelmed the tiny country's computers by taking 80 percent of their bandwidth offline for two weeks. The attacks coincided with renewed Russian pressure for the country to close a U.S. air base that is a key route for troops, fuel, and supplies heading to Afghanistan.
Earlier today, the Kyrgyzstan parliament appeared to capitulate to the cyberattackers, with 78 of 81 voting to shut down the Manas air base. If the president of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, signs the legislation—a prospect sweetened by a concurrent offer of $2 billion in Russian aid—the U.S. will have 180 days to vacate our only air base in central Asia. The vote occurs just days after President Obama ordered 17,000 new troops deployed to strengthen the decaying security situation in Afghanistan.
This was the third cyberattack in the Russian sphere of influence in the last 18 months.
In the spring of 2007, Estonia was subjected to a massive denial-of-service attack, which impacted government ministries, banks, and newspapers. The attacks, apparently in retaliation for a decision to move a statue commemorating the Soviet defeat of the Nazis from a central city square to a suburban park, lasted more than three weeks.
Russia's August 2008 ground invasion of Georgia was preceded by cyberattacks on computer servers that largely prevented the Georgian government from communicating with its own citizens or internationally via the Internet. The Georgian Foreign Ministry Web site was entirely disabled except for a collage comparing President Mikhail Saakashvili to Hitler.
In all three cases, the Russian government denied any connections to the cybersieges of these former Soviet possessions, but many analysts assert the attacks came from Russian ISP addresses. Moreover, there are similarities to methods used by the shadowy Russian Business Network, a cybercrime outfit that hosted illegal online activities from child pornography sites to mass spam and identity-theft scams, and stole $150 million from bank accounts worldwide in 2006.
These sorts of outsourced cybermilitia attacks are a harbinger of an emerging age of warfare that aims to destabilize societies and economies by throwing communication into chaos, either before or instead of a conventional attack. It's now possible to exercise a gray area of options in an attempt to intimidate a nation-state, either neighboring or around the world, while maintaining plausible deniability for the incursions.
"Kyrgyzstan's decision to terminate American use of the air base certainly was in part a result of Russia's offer, and Kyrgyzstan's acceptance, of over $2 billion in assistance. But there may be more to it, in an ominous sense," says Charles Hill, a former senior adviser to Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz who now teaches in the International Studies program at Yale. "The January cyberattack on Kyrgyzstan is quite in line with the kind of thuggish, disavowable acts of intimidation—or worse, as in assassinations—that have become associated with Russia in the Putin era."
In 2005, Kyrgyz President Bakiyev asserted that the "air base in international Manas airport will be [available] until the situation in Afghanistan is completely stabilized." The situation in Afghanistan has only gotten worse, but it looks like principles may have changed in the face of this digital extortion. At a NATO meeting in Poland, Defense Secretary Robert Gates' expressed hope that the U.S. might still get the Kyrgyz president to keep his earlier commitment. But the Obama administration's latest headache is the least of our larger worries. If cyberattacks have proven their success in the world of realpolitik, expect more as an ugly era unfolds.
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon was director of speechwriting and deputy director of policy for Rudolph Giuliani's presidential campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as chief speechwriter and deputy communications director for then-Mayor Giuliani.