The scale of cyber attacks on companies are becoming more threatening. What would happen after an assault on a nation’s grid? An interconnected world has made us more susceptible to the dangers of a cyberwar.

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Imagine you woke up to discover a massive cyberwar on your country. All government data has been destroyed, taking out healthcare records, birth certificates, social care records and so much more. The transport system isn’t working, traffic lights are blank, immigration is in chaos and all tax records have disappeared. The internet has been reduced to an error message and daily life as you know it has halted.

This might sound fanciful, but don’t be so sure. When countries declare cyberwar on one another in future, this sort of disaster might be the opportunity the enemy is looking for. The internet has brought us many great things but it has made us more vulnerable. Protecting against such futuristic cyberwar attacks is one of the key challenges of the 21st century.

Strategists know that the most fragile part of internet infrastructure is the energy supply. The starting point in serious cyberwar may well be to trip the power stations which power the data centers involved with the core routing elements of the network.

Back-up generators and uninterruptible power supplies might offer protection in cyberwar attacks, but they don’t always work and can potentially be hacked. In any case, backup power is usually designed to shut off after a few hours. That is enough time to correct a normal fault, but cyberwar attacks might require backup for days or even weeks.

William Cohen, the former US Secretary of Defence, recently predicted such a major outage would cause large-scale economic damage and civil unrest throughout a country. In a cyberwar situation, this could be enough to bring about defeat. Janet Napolitano, a former secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security, believes the American system is not well enough protected to avoid this situation if under cyberwar attacks.

Denial of Service

A cyberwar attack on the national grid could involve what is called a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. These use multiple computers to flood a system with information from many sources at the same time. This could make it easier for hackers to neutralise the backup power and tripping the system.

DDoS attacks are also a major threat in their own right. They could overload the main network gateways of a country and cause major outages. Such attacks are commonplace against the private sector, particularly finance companies. Akamai Technologies, which controls 30 percent of internet traffic, recently said these are the most worrying kind of cyberwar attacks and that they are becoming ever more sophisticated.

Akamai monitored a sustained cyberwar attack against a media outlet of 363 gigabits per second (Gbps) – a scale which few companies, let alone a nation, could cope with for long. Networks specialist Verisign reports a shocking 111 percent increase in DDoS attacks per year, almost half of them over 10 Gbps in scale – much more powerful than previously. The top sources are Vietnam, Brazil and Colombia.

Number of cyberwar attacks


Scale of cyberwar attacks


Most DDoS attacks swamp an internal network with traffic via the DNS and NTP servers that provide most core services within the network. Without DNS the internet wouldn’t work, but it is weak from a security point of view. Specialists have been trying to come up with a solution, but building security into these servers to recognise DDoS attacks appears to mean re-engineering the entire internet.

How to React

If a country’s grid were taken down by an attack for any length of time, the ensuing chaos would potentially be enough to win a cyberwar outright. If instead its online infrastructure were substantially compromised by a DDoS attack, the response would probably go like this:

Phase one: Network takeover

The country’s security operations center would need to take control of internet traffic to stop its citizens from crashing the internal infrastructure. We possibly saw this in the failed Turkish coup a while ago, where YouTube and social media went completely offline inside the country.

Phase two: Attack analysis

Security analysts would be trying to figure out how to cope with the cyberwar attack without affecting the internal operation of the network.

Phase three: Observation and large-scale control

The authorities would be faced with countless alerts about system crashes and problems. The challenge would be to ensure only key alerts reached the analysts trying to overcome the problems before the infrastructure collapsed. A key focus would be ensuring military, transport, energy, health and law enforcement systems were given the highest priority, along with financial systems.

Phase four: Observation and fine control 

By this stage there would be some stability and the attention could turn to lesser but important alerts regarding things like financial and commercial interests.

Phase five: Coping and restoring

This would be about restoring normality and trying to recover damaged systems. The challenge would be to reach this phase as quickly as possible with the least sustained damage during a cyberwar situation.

State of Play

If even the security-heavy US is concerned about its grid, the same is likely to be true of most countries. Many countries are not well drilled to cope with sustained DDoS, especially given the fundamental weaknesses in DNS servers. Small countries are particularly at risk for cyberwar attacks because they often depend on infrastructure that reaches a central point in a larger country nearby.

The UK, it should be said, is probably better placed than some countries to survive cyberwar attacks. It enjoys an independent grid, and the UK Government Communications Headquarters and the National Crime Agency have helped to encourage some of the best private sector security operations centers in the world. Many countries could probably learn a great deal from it. Estonia, whose infrastructure was disabled for several days in 2007 following a cyberwar attack, is now looking at moving copies of government data to the U.K. for protection.

Given the current level of international tension and the potential damage from a major cyberwar attack, this is an area that all countries need to take very seriously. Better to do it now rather than waiting until one country pays the price. For better and worse, the world has never been so connected.

This post originally appeared on GE Reports Africa.

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