It used to be that malware was known as a minor annoyance at best, and at worse could turn your computer into an expensive brick. But these days malware is capable of rapidly spreading across the globe, infecting water and power systems, government and corporate computer networks, banks, and even stock exchanges.
In short, cyber attacks have reached a new level of sophistication that can cause real, lasting damage to society. They’re capable of shattering economies and shutting down utilities. And by extension, cyber attacks can kill people.
That may seem far fetched for now. The WannaCry malware that spread around the world last month, as well as yesterday’s Petya cyber attack, have infected hundreds of thousands of computers, and cost governments and private companies millions of dollars. That’s inconvenient, but hardly lethal. However, the potential damage that cyber attacks can inflict can’t be ignored. Whether we like it or not, malware has advanced to a point where it is capable of wreaking havoc on society.
Which is why governments are now beginning to treat cyber attacks like military threats. And because their status has been elevated in the eyes of governments around the world, that means that cyber attacks could one day be responsible for starting wars.
The recent Petya cyber attack for instance, has been widely blamed on the Russian government (though it should be noted that it takes advantage of an exploit developed by the NSA.). It has led NATO to announce that in the future, cyber attacks could trigger the alliance’s mutual defense clause, which states that if one nation is attacked by a foreign aggressor, every member of NATO must strike back.
Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, said alliance members agreed last year that a cyber attack could trigger Article 5 of the north Atlantic treaty in the same way as a conventional military assault and promised more help to Ukraine to bolster its own cyber defences.
“The attack in May and this week just underlines the importance of strengthening our cyber defences and that is what we are doing,” Mr Stoltenberg said at a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday…
…Mr Stoltenberg said the alliance had also defined cyber defence as a Nato domain on a par with land, air, and sea operations, and would see similar planning and funding as a result.
On Tuesday Michael Fallon, the British defence secretary, said the UK would consider retaliating with military means against a cyber attack by another state, reflecting rising concern about the militarization of cyber space the havoc such attacks can cause.
These people are basically threatening to start World War Three if the Russian government ever delivers a cyber attack that cripples a NATO nation. Cyber attacks have officially opened a whole new can of worms on the global stage. That’s because these kinds of attacks are elusive. It can be difficult or even impossible to figure out who’s responsible when malware is spreading across the planet.
So now it’s possible that one nation could destroy another and never face any repercussions. Or one government could deploy malware on its own citizens, and blame it on another government that they wish to go to war with. Or terrorists could spark a war between rival nations. All they would have to do is deploy multiple cyber attacks to both nations, and wait for them to blame each other.
And just like that, the world has become a far more dangerous place.