At a time when the UK is struggling to cope with the covert cyber warfare carried out by state-sponsored Russian hackers, a number of other countries are now learning the tricks employed by Russia to launch cyber operations to meet their own strategic and geopolitical aims.
As such, the UK needs to strengthen its cyber defence strategies in order to respond to future cyber threats posed by multiple nations with varying capabilities and political aims.
Earlier this month, the UK government launching a scathing verbal attack on the Russian government for carrying out cover warfare both in terms of cyber attacks as well as the unprecedented use of a nerve agent, both of which could affect the population at large and create instability in the country. To demonstrate its intent, the government broke off high-level engagements with Russia and expelled dozens of Russian embassy officials who it said were undeclared intelligence officers.
Even though it was probably the strongest stance taken by the government against a foreign country since the Falklands crisis, there is very little the government can do to respond effectively to cyber attacks launched by Russia despite receiving strong support from the likes of the United States, France and Germany.
Threats from China, North Korea, and the Middle East
According to a Financial Times report, cyber threats faced by western countries is the "new normal". Besides Russia, hackers based in and sponsored by countries like China, North Korea, and Iran are also launching fresh cyber attacks on entities based in the UK and the rest of Europe with increasing success.
For example, researchers at NCC Group revealed earlier this month that a hacker group alleged to be close to the Chinese government hacked into a UK government contractor's network and stole information related to UK government departments and sensitive communication technology. This was discovered just a few months after German intelligence agency unearthed multiple fake LinkedIn profiles that it saed were being used by China to gather information on politicians and other officials.
'Chinese intelligence services are active on networks like LinkedIn and have been trying for a while to extract information and find intelligence sources in this way, including seeking data on users’ habits, hobbies and political interests. There could be a large number of target individuals and fake profiles that have not yet been identified,' the Bfv said.
China's notorious neighbour North Korea has also been in the thick of things in the recent past. As if its nuclear ambitions weren't threatening enough, it recently earned a strong rebuke from the UK and the US for its role in last year's WannaCry ransomware attack that affected a large number of NHS hospitals and other organisations.
Hacker based in North Korea were also found to be involved in cyber attacks on organisations associated with the recently0concluded Winter Olympics, as well as several ransomware attacks that victimised people and organisations across the world.
Iran, yet another country whose relations with the West hasn't been comfortable for some time, has also launched several covert cyber attacks on entities based in Western countries. For example, the National Council of Resistance of Iran revealed in February how the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard injected advanced spying tools into apps to carry out surveillance on millions of Iranians and people in Western countries.
"The dissemination of these apps outside of Iran will enable the IRGC to spy globally and at will. Some of these apps are also available on App Store, GitHub and Google Play despite reports and user reviews warning they contain spyware embedded by the Iranian regime’s app developers. The spread of these apps outside Iran will put Internet users across the world at significant risk, increasing the rate of malware infections,' the group said.
More nations joining the cyber warfare bandwagon
According to FT, a former US intelligence chief has warned how India and Pakistan could soon raise the threat of international proliferation of cyber weapons by engaging in cyber warfare. It added that while Russia, China, North Korea and Iran have been launching cyber attacks to respond to international political events, the use of cyber weapons by more countries could significantly escalate the threat faced by Western countries in the future.
Whether they are supported by their respective countries or not, hackers across the world are certainly using the shelter of international borders to carry out their malicious activities without fear of persecution. Considering that an armed conflict between nations will probably encourage cyber warfare instead of preventing it, world leaders have to come up with a new solution to solve the problem in the near future. What that solution could be is anybody's guess.