Where do hackers dare: with the attack on the US political system has an impassable limit been exceeded?

(To Ciro Metuarata)

Nowadays there is a lot of talk about everything that has the prefix "cyber" (cyberdefence, cybersecurity, cyber warfare, cyber attacks, etc.). Governments that can afford it try to chase events by investing huge amounts of financial resources and energy into development programs in all that is cyber and specialized societies and experts proliferate and rub their hands. Even supranational bodies are increasingly sensitive to the issue, so as to launch, in some cases, high-sounding proclamations and threatening thesis to make it clear that any attack carried out in the cyber domain1 (for "brand new" NATO) it will be considered a full-scale aggression and will therefore be paid in the light of international law (ie by means of peaceful resolution or by using armed force). "And here", as a hypothetical Italian hacker would say, "fall the donkey": are they serious or bluffing knowing full well that in reality and a global cyber war is already underway with unpredictable developments?

It is sufficient to consult the list of the most important cybercrime accidents recorded globally by the 2006 to date, to realize that in the cyberspace there has been a ruthless and underground competition among states for some time, without excluding blows. A very recent example: the same day that the International Court of Justice in The Hague issued a ruling in favor of the Philippines concerning the dispute over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (last 12 July), 68 Filipino government sites were mysteriously attacked and "sunk" by simultaneous cyber attacks. Is it a case? Only a child could believe it.

In this scenario, which in itself is already quite worrying, the recent attack against the information systems of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which has raised so much political fanfare, should make the chair (and wrists) shake more than one head of State / Government, as it consists in a real leap in quality. In fact, "someone" (according to the Americans, the usual "close environments" to the Russian government) has launched an unprecedented attack with at least two specific goals: gather valuable information on the next US president (whoever will be, since the DNC were subtracted also the confidential files on Trump) and above all, influence the democratic process of the world superpower par excellence. Does that seem to you little ?!

So, after the appearance of cyber weapons on the scene in the 2010 (capable of causing material damage - see the attack known as Stuxnet), under the persistent threat of cyber espionage and cyber terrorism, with the cyber crime almost out of control and with possible attacks on critical infrastructures (power plants, communication networks, aqueducts, etc.) that hang like so many "swords of Damocles" "On the heads of us unsuspecting citizens, here is emerging a very refined threat: the cyber attack to support an" influence campaign ". If the aggression to the American political system, whose effects are not limited to the Democratic Party but affect the entire election campaign and therefore the regular unfolding of the US democratic process, has really happened yet we do not know: the wise dissemination of the stolen data , in part already taken, will it seriously affect the American electorate and thus the outcome of the elections? Certainly Debbie Wesserman, the president of the Democratic party, was forced to resign following the political case that broke out after the content of some emails stolen through the attack was spread. But what is the desired effect? What purpose? Which candidate do you want to favor and why? Unfortunately, unless twists and turns, only those who conceived the attack could solve this puzzle.

It would be good, however, to become aware once and for all that as the cyber domain expands, incorporating an ever increasing number of aspects / activities of our life (individual and community), it is increasingly exploited by States to compete among them at global and / or regional level. And while the so-called traditional domains of military competition are now almost entirely regulated by international law, cyber domination is another matter entirely. It constitutes, in fact, a gray area by its nature unregulated, anarchic, transnational and therefore hardly subject, in practical acts, to international law. Furthermore, the temptation to think that this situation, after all, is good for everyone is very strong. In fact, beyond the proclamations and good intentions, in the vast majority of cases, despite having evidence of the origins of the attacks, no provision was made against the attacker except to have repaid following the well-known rule of the "eye for eye, tooth for tooth ". In fact, it does not appear that the "ax of war" has ever been "unearthed" for a cyber attack immediately and neither has it ever been before an International Tribunal to claim sanctions against the "alleged aggressor" (the Bradley / Chelsea Manning cases, Snowden and Assange are treated according to national criminal codes). "Presumed", because on the Internet little or nothing is safe at 100%, not even the identity of those who work there. And then, let's face it, among the "big" world (the same people who sit at different international tables to cooperate for "common good and safety") who can afford to throw the first stone?

The impression is that governments, in particular, are more interested in maintaining the status quo by staging a nice little theater, rather than finding ways to "bind their hands", even cheating cyberspace in international law (assuming that you can do it). We'll see. On the other hand, what we are living is probably a page of history still to be written: how will the United States react to such a serious interference in its internal affairs, aimed at influencing the democratic process at the base of their very existence? There will be an answer, but of what kind, to what extent and when? It is unthinkable that the escalation that is occurring in the cyber domain is still ignored for a long time.

Ultimately, in this world where conflicts tend to increasingly marginalize forces, strategies and "conventional" techniques in favor of "hybrid" and innovative ones, cyber space seems to represent for the States the new "land of conquest" ".

A gray dimension, almost without rules, fluid, that if occupied and exploited properly allows to influence the other dimensions for their own strategic purposes, without risking (almost) nothing. It is a scenario too desirable for those who have ambitions of global reach not to be fully exploited. And those who have understood it for a long time are already refining their tactics, enlisting their cyber soldiers, sharpening their weapons and pointing them straight to the targets identified. Does this seem an exaggeration? Be aware that last July, researchers revealed that they had discovered a cyber espionage campaign targeting the information systems of several European energy companies. They found that the malware used to exfiltrate the data is so sophisticated that it can easily be attributed to a team sponsored by a State (Eastern Europe) and that it is the type generally used in the activity of "preparation of the field of battle".

Everything's ready.

Who will be the next to "fire"?


Note (1) In a nutshell, generally by domain we mean a field, a sector. In the military context the "traditional" domains of military operations are terrestrial, air, maritime and space. Only recently and in no particular order, the military doctrines of the various countries have included the "new" cyber domain.

The article has been elaborated drawing from the following sources:

Center for Strategic and International Studies, "significant cyber incidents since 2006";

The Washington Post, "Russian government hackers penetrated DNC, stole opposition research on trump";

The Guardian, "Stuxnet worm heralds new era of global cyberwar";

Ants, "Here's how deep the hacker attack (Russian) to the American Democrats";

NATO Cooperative Cyber ​​Defense Center of Excellence, "DNC, an hack escalation can not be ignored".

(photo: US DoD / web)