Cyber war: The invisible opponent

It’s like the plot of a bad crime novel. A series of crimes occur and the police always come across the same suspect at the scene of the crime. He would definitely have a motive, but constantly asserts his innocence and no one can prove he did anything.

Sounds corny? But in reality, things are similar to this. Politically motivated attacks over the internet? These are almost always linked with Russia. A cyberattack on the German parliament in 2015 – the suspect: Russia. That same winter, just before Christmas, the power supply of an energy supplier in western Ukraine was cut off remotely. The suspect: Russia. A large-scale DDoS attack on Estonia in 2017, phishing for German foreign office documents in 2018 or interfering in the computer systems of the Swiss arms manufacturer Ruag at the end of 2014. Each time, the suspect: Russia.

A motive is not always hard to find. The DDoS attack on the Estonian parliament, on the media and banks in 2017 preceded a fierce battle over a Soviet monument in Tallinn. The power cut-off in the Ukraine occurred like an accompaniment to the conflicts in eastern Ukraine. Even in the US presidential election in 2016, Russia is supposed to have interfered in the form of cybercrime to damage the reputation of candidate Hilary Clinton. She had previously publicly questioned the lawfulness of the Russian elections in 2011. Late revenge?

“Like in a bombardment“

Less clear is the search for a reason behind the Ruag hack, which was first made public in 2016. “Russian hackers uncover secret Swiss elite troop“, was the title in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in May 2016. But why? It is possible that the attackers were able to look at covert personnel from special forces unit AAD 10 from secret documents. Federal Council politician Guy Parmelin and Ruag first suspected industrial espionage, but political motives were also not ruled out. This is why Switzerland went along with western sanctions against Russian oligarchs. Russia saw this as a violation of neutrality.

Could the much-discussed scenario be true then, that conflicts of the future were not carried out on battlefields but online? In an interview with the Tagesanzeiger last October, Parmelin paints a sinister picture: “It is conceivable that we are attacked by an enemy of our time and our critical infrastructures are crippled, the hospitals, nuclear power plants, traffic. The time will come where our vital interests are affected just like in a bombardment.”

First and foremost, defence would mean defence from cyber-attacks, securing networks and infrastructure so that public life can’t be broken apart. And here, the question of who is guilty would suddenly become of secondary importance. It isn’t that it doesn’t matter who is doing the attacking, but it is rare that this can be determined without any doubt.

Too few cyberwarriors

So even in the case of a paralysed Ukrainian power grid, there would be an alternative theory to “Moscow is responsible“. Ukraine fosters aspirations of nationalising the private power grid, writes the Bulletin, relating to the US security expert Robert Lee. This could have brought about the discontent of an oligarch who owns a few private energy suppliers in the Ukraine. A Russian oligarch and everything certainly also an accompaniment to the eastern Ukraine conflict, but mostly an economic motive, not a political one.

Either way, Parmelin sees an increased need for cyber specialists. But there is a surprising problem here: Google. The IT search giant does not want to expand further in Switzerland – which is actually good news. From 250 IT experts who graduate from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology each year, a large percentage go directly to Google. The remaining experts are far too few in number for the cyber war, even if you could convince each one of them to join the defence.