Cyberwar: An explainer

By Dr Francisco J. Aparicio Navarro, Senior Lecturer in Cyber Security 

The networked battlespace and cyberspace operations have changed the nature of modern warfare.   

Opponents can launch cyber-attacks from anywhere to deny and disrupt the enemies’ Critical National Infrastructure – such as food supplies, energy, transport networks and the like – and to manipulate and destroy sensitive data and software.   

Image: Shutterstock

However, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has demonstrated that cyber warfare can also play a role in conducting narrative-driven operations, where the main targets are not networked assets but minds of the people instead.  

In addition to the use of information and communication technology as part of an offensive and defensive military operation strategy, cyber warfare includes techniques and tactics designed to gather intelligence advantage about enemies, as well as use information warfare for manipulating individuals’ perception of the situation and decision-making, mobilising groups of supporters, and causing uncertainty to political leaders.   

Information warfare, in the form of propaganda and political coercion, can be as severe as a physical attack on a nation’s population.   

The influence over the targets in cyber psychological and information warfare operations is often achieved by spreading rumours and misinformation through social media. Pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine cyber groups have been engaged in an information warfare on social media for years, mostly focused on winning the political narrative.  

The release of falsified or ambiguous messages of hate, fear or hope content in social media can be used for deception and manipulation, and can enable cyber adversaries to achieve their strategic goals without the need for actual military conflict.   

Although the people posting these messages can rarely be attributed to be working under the instructions of any government, cyber hacking groups have become a central part of multiple nations’ information warfare toolkit.   

In fact, many countries are believed to outsource their cyber operations to organisations or people not directly linked to their government, to conduct cyber-attacks on their behalf.   

The support of non-state cyber hacking groups provides nations with covert against attribution claims. These can be mobilised relatively quickly and disbanded when they are no longer needed, and will often collaborate for free, provided that the objectives and goals accord with their own views and values.   

Hacker activist group Anonymous has declared cyber war against the Russian government. There have been messages on social media reporting that they have hacked the Russian Ministry of Defence database and multiple state TV channels to show pro-Ukraine content.  

On the one hand, these actions play a significant role in fighting the information warfare, creating uncertainty among the Russian population, and potentially reverting the support of the population to the government. 

On the other hand, however, these cyber-attacks against governmental and military assets on their own may have a limited impact on Russia in the war. 

During the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, Russian forces coordinated their physical military operations with cyber-attacks. These cyber-attacks included disruptive Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) – flooding servers with data – and website defacement, where content was deleted and replaced with their own messages. 

However, other cyber-attacks not coordinated with physical military operations have had a limited impact on national infrastructure, such as the DoS and botnets – a network of private computers infected with malicious software and controlled as a group without the owners' knowledge – launched on Estonian banks, telecommunications assets and government websites in 2007, and the Stuxnet malware, which compromised and damaged an Iranian nuclear plant in 2010. 

While the cyber-attacks by Anonymous could help with fighting the war from the cyber space, they may not be powerful enough to constrain Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Posted on Wednesday 2 March 2022

  Search news archive