In the darkest days of the Cold War two of the most fearsome weapons created in mankind’s imagination were invented. These weapons had contradictory aims. One was the neutron bomb, a nuclear bomb that was designed to emit high energy neutrons rather than simple explosive energy, with the result that there would be huge numbers of deaths, though the amount of damage to buildings and other physical objects would be minimized.
The other was a nuclear EMP bomb. This was a nuclear bomb that would be exploded at high altitude and which was designed to deliver much of its energy as an electromagnetic pulse. An EMP creates a huge magnetic field that induces electric currents which will burn our power supply lines and all forms of electrical equipment. The aim is to destroy the infrastructure of the country.
Now that the Cold War is ostensibly over, and the only nuclear threats appear to be from rogue states that are unlikely to be able to deliver the kind of knockout blows described above, the threat has moved from nuclear warfare to cyber warfare. Today this is considered to be a bigger threat than Al Qaeda, and although many people don’t realise it, the cyber war is already being waged. For instance in the US Cyber Command is a branch of the National Security Agency (NSA) that is devoted to protecting military networks and in Europe the European Network and Information Security Agency is devoted to European cyber defence. Furthermore, Iran claims to have the second largest cyber army in the world.
In cyber war one aim is to cripple a country by crippling its infrastructure, an aim not that different from that of the EMP bomb. One example of a cyber war in recent times was the taking down of the uranium enrichment facility; an important part of the nuclear programme in Iran by infecting the control systems with the “Stuxnet” computer worm. The worm infected almost 60% of all the computers in Iran (and just 1.5% of the computers in the US). It is believed that the attack was carried out by the US and Palestine. Other motivations for cyber warfare include the web and all forms of data communication and industrial espionage, a hugely under-reported activity.
Today political strategies are focussed on pre-emptive strikes on potential attackers and one of the dangers of this is collateral damage. Today many businesses are linked to government departments, and could well be a weak link in the chain.
Cyber warfare is still a new frontier and we could all be at risk from it. Today all we can do is ensure that we use the latest e-security systems and tools that are available to us, and remain alert to the potential of new risks. The biggest risk is still through email which is used to deliver the knockout payloads, so email security is a priority. We should also ensure that we use only secure email providers such as Mimecast to protect us from cyber threats.