Maybe even ten years ago, the idea that a state-sponsored cyberattack could be real was more speculative than fiction. Now it’s not only real, the United States has actually been the target of it for a year and a half. Welcome to the ugly future of cyberwarfare, courtesy of Energetic Bear.
Wait, wait, wait, the Russians have been attacking our power grid? For eighteen months?
Apparently so. It was designed primarily for spying, but Energetic Bear could also have disabled key points in the power grid, such as generators and wind turbines.
How was this even possible?
Through a number of strategies, the most common being phishing emails and “watering hole” attacks that redirected popular websites to a fake site with an exploit. It shares a lot of similarities with the first identified cyberweapons, Stuxnet and Flame, and exploits the poor security that underlies quite a few industrial software products.
Why would Russia do this?
Somewhere in the back of Putin’s wannabe supervillain brain was probably the idea that if he could disable the world’s energy grid, there wouldn’t be those pesky economic sanctions or attempts to get in the way of his attempts to take over sovereign nations in the clumsiest way possible. On a more practical level, Russia isn’t exactly cutting edge when it comes to technology, and signals intelligence is about the only intelligence the country is still good at. Either way, it’s widely believed Energetic Bear is state-sponsored; it’s just too complex and the motives behind it are too clearly governmental in nature.
Is this war?
Well, the good/bad news is that if we’re just now becoming aware of it, the government was definitely aware of it well before now. So if it’s war, the response is probably unfolding as we speak; let’s not forget that Stuxnet is almost certainly a weapon that originated in the US.
Of course, it also happens to have been enormously illegal and it’s almost impossible to prove that the virus is actually from the United States government, just like Energetic Bear can’t really be proven in a court of law to come from the land of bears and vodka. So that’s a problem.
So, long term, what happens?
Well, either these weapons stop here, or a vast, dangerous shadow war begins unfolding on the Internet, where every computer, industrial system, and other convenience of modern life is invaded and has lingering on it a dangerous load of software that can throw us back to the Stone Age or kill us. Considering the behavior of governments, expect the latter.