Full-blown cyberwar: a Hollywood worthy scenario


“If I were to do something, I would attack power and water, communications, and banking. I'd go after your physiological needs, then your safety and security needs, and then compound that with additional attacks.” – Morgan Wright.

We all fear the end. But how is it going to happen? No one knows. With growing tensions around the world, some may think that a nuclear war is on the cards, which could potentially wipe out the entire human race.

But what if there’s something more covert, subtle, but equally as dangerous? Something that could threaten to destabilize life as we know it?

If a nuclear war breaks out, you’ll know about it. It’ll most likely be plastered across the news and social media.

Cyber warfare might not be. But there will be signs.

If a nuclear war breaks out, you’ll know about it. It’ll most likely be plastered across the news and social media.

Cyber warfare might not be. But there will be signs.

First, your television and radio will stop working. You’ll lose internet access, and your electricity will be shut off.

If you’re lucky, your home's water and central heating will no longer work. If you’re unlucky, your taps may start spouting poisonous chemicals.

Hospitals, schools, and businesses will be inaccessible, and attempting to flee might not get you very far.

This is the result of multiple strategic attacks on critical infrastructure, and the only thing that could trump this type of attack is a nuclear bomb.

Nuclear war has been the subject of our fears for decades. Now, we’re confronted with a new kind of destruction.

But don’t fret. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) has seemingly kept nuclear war at bay, and it may also prevent a cyber-enabled apocalypse.

This is how the world is going cyber mad.

How cyberwar starts

The aforementioned scenario is extremely horrifying and definitely possible. All hackers need to do is attack the systems we rely on daily and shut them down.

It sounds insane, but some experts believe it's plausible.

“A single cyberattack could take out critical infrastructure for an entire country. That would be very difficult to successfully launch an attack of that scale. But I think it is absolutely possible,” cybersecurity strategist Crystal Morin said.

“If I were to do something, I would attack power and water. I would also attack communications and banking. I'd go after your physiological needs. Then I'd go after your safety and security needs. And then I would compound that with additional attacks. So, for it to be effective and to achieve what you want, it's not always necessarily destroying something. But throwing society into chaos,” said another cybersecurity expert, Morgan Wright.

A cyberwar may not be as devastating as a fully-fledged nuclear attack. However, rebuilding the world after multiple sustained cyberattacks on critical infrastructure would not be a simple task.

All digital documentation could be wiped from the face of the Earth. Personal records, banking information, and financial information the markets run on would all be gone. Without these records, the world would descend into chaos.

This could continue for years, even decades, until some semblance of our former economy emerged from the depths of depravity.

A cyberwar of this caliber is something that no one wants. Civilians would lose the comforts of their old lives, businesses would suffer the loss of millions, and governments could face possible dissolution.

If anyone watched ‘Leave the World Behind,’ you’ll know what the cyber apocalypse might look like. We might not have a fleet of abandoned Teslas littering the roads, but technology-dependent lives would fray at the seams.

So, it’s certainly in our best interests to defend critical infrastructure from bad actors. Isn’t it?

This is happening now

Successful cyberattacks on critical systems happen every day.

In May 2023, Microsoft divulged information about the infiltration of communication systems across the Pacific by Chinese hackers known as Volt Typhoon.

According to Microsoft, “Volt Typhoon achieves initial access to targeted organizations through internet-facing Fortinet FortiGuard devices.”

Volt Typhoon then attempts to leverage the privileges given by the Fortinet device to harvest credentials “to an Active Directory account used by the device and then attempts to authenticate to other devices on the network.”

In this event, the hacking gang controlled many sectors, including communications, manufacturing, utility, transportation, construction, maritime, government, information technology, and education.

Microsoft adds that Volt Typhoon intended to perform espionage and keep access to these systems while evading detection.

So, Volt Typhoon had its fingers on the trigger and could have potentially shut down all those sectors, crippling the US and many other countries. But it never did.

At the same time, a Danish cybersecurity watchdog identified an attack on the country’s infrastructure.

The watchdog found Sandworm, an advanced persistent threat operated by a unit of the Russian military intelligence. The hacking gang broke into 22 companies responsible for maintaining and managing power plants, transmission networks, and distribution centers.

Although part of the attack was halted, the group still controlled most of Denmark’s power grid. They could shut off all power in the country, but they never did.

Finally, in February 2024, a leak of internal documents by iSoon, a Chinese spyware manufacturing company, was posted online.

Alongside thousands of other documents, there were logs showing that the company had broken into LG U Plus, one of the largest network providers in South Korea.

Like the other examples, the bad actors had the opportunity to cause immense damage and even shut down communications across the country, but again, they never did it.

Persistence

But the aim of the game here is persistence, which is something that separates your run-of-the-mill cybercriminals from the big guns.

Cybercriminals, hacktivists, and rogue regimes attack critical infrastructure with the goal of inflicting as much damage as possible. But often, their gains are temporary. Despite causing millions of dollars in damages, this is nothing compared to a fully-fledged cyberwar.

To wage a cyber war, one needs persistence. Persistence affords these individuals the ability to not only break into the system and steal data but also to remain in the system without being detected.

Unlike regular cybercriminals, a hacker army would want to maintain a low profile to keep this unauthorized access so they could later exploit these systems more strategically.

But how does this relate to Mutually Assured Destruction? Well, the promise of causing harm is more valuable than actually inflicting damage. It is potentially better to assert one's dominance and maintain control without action.

Take Hiram Maxim, a British-American engineer who created many of the inventions we use today. Most importantly, he created one of the most dangerous weapons to grace the battlefields of the eighteen hundreds: the machine gun.

Many believed that this invention would make wars more deadly, while Maxim believed that this would make war impossible.

If both parties wielded this weapon, then nobody would incite violence due to a mutual understanding that both parties may be destroyed, and ultimately, no one would win the fight.

This is the definition of mutually assured destruction or MAD. The concept of MAD became a strong symbol of the Cold War as leading superpowers seemed to rely on this ‘strategy’ to prevent World War Three.

But times have changed, and despite nuclear war still being at the back of people’s minds, anxieties surrounding major cyberattacks have taken over.

MAD world

The concept of mutually assured destruction is just that – a concept. Nobody really knows how it works or whether it works, as it would just take one maniac to pull the trigger, and a crescendo of attacks would occur across the world.

However, the concept of deterrence is still prevalent in both the nuclear and cyber sense.

Nuclear deterrence involves countries openly stating that they won’t hesitate to destroy the planet if attacked.

Whereas cyber deterrence is different. Most countries claim they will deter attackers by protecting their networks with the best security practices possible. Yet, no country openly states it will take offensive cyber action if attacked.

Now, to draw a direct line between mutually assured nuclear destruction and cyber warfare is not a simple task.

Cyberspace is vast and complex. There are many actors and players, and there are many ways that everything could go wrong.

Some experts think that mutually assured destruction can exist in cyberspace.

“I don't know that mutually assured destruction works as well in cyberspace because you've got different actors. The chessboard is different. It's set up differently. So many more people can participate. Mutually Assured Destruction worked when the players were well known, the rules of engagement were well known, and the consequences were well known. We still don't really know the consequences of what happens in cyberspace,” Morgan Wright explained.

“The threshold of what becomes the declaration of war from a cyberspace attack needs to be ultimately defined because, without it, you're really going to have this ambiguous kind of where are we? What does this mean?” said the Professor of Security and Global Studies at American Public University System James Hess.

However, some experts believe that to achieve mutually assured destruction, attacks would need to be consistent and equally powerful. Breaking into one sector of critical infrastructure is much easier than simultaneously breaking into all aspects of critical infrastructure.

“You know, there's a lot of things that have to go right in order to achieve this mutually assured destruction. How do you attack all of that at the same time? It will take an immense amount of resources to achieve this mutually assured, um, effort,” the Founder and CEO ofTeamWorx Security, Chris Anthony, said.

Luckily, fully-fledged cyber warfare might not be on the cards yet, and nuclear destruction might still be a more plausible scenario. However, could we anticipate cyber warfare in the future?

Should we gear up for modern-day inventors like Maxim, who created the machine gun, to create cyber weapons that could deter cyber warfare and even redefine our understanding of mutually assured destruction? Well, only time will tell.