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New FireEye Report: World War C

National security decision makers need to know – is cyber war fact or fiction? When the theater of operations is invisible, hype may be our single greatest enemy.

Cyber war skeptics raise valid points, such as the current known number of human casualties caused by cyber attacks: zero. But … that’s not the end of the story, because we are only at the beginning of the Internet era.

It is true that computer hacking is a technical discipline, not a death ray. But as such, computer hacking is best understood not as an end in itself, but a potentially powerful means to a wide variety of political, military, and economic goals.

Any computer can be hacked. Therefore, the functions of that computer can be sabotaged. In a national security context, think air defense, power grid, nuclear missiles. Any national leader would consider such a cyber attack an act of war. And those are the hard targets – for the practitioners of psychological operations and information warfare, the battlefield has never been greener.

Today, FireEye is releasing a new report, World War C: Understanding Nation-State Motives Behind Today’s Advanced Cyber Attacks.

This report highlights the fact that cyber attacks are already a worldwide phenomenon, which governments routinely use to defend national sovereignty and project national power. From Moonlight Maze to Titan Rain, from Estonia to Georgia, from Natanz to Aramco – human conflict is entering a new phase in its long history. In World War C, bits fly before bullets, malware before militias, and botnets before bombs.

In particular, FireEye hopes to bring attention to a fascinating aspect of conflict portrayed in the book World War Z – that each country (and region) has a unique history, culture, and political system … therefore, they will also have unique approaches to international conflict, including cyber war.

Here is a quick overview:

  • Asia-Pacific: home to large, bureaucratic hacker groups such as the “Comment Crew” who pursue many goals and targets in high-frequency, brute-force attacks.
  • Russia/Eastern Europe: home to more technically advanced attacks that are effective at evading detection.
  • Middle East: home to dynamic, creative, and deceptive attacks that rely more on guile than zero-days or brute force.
  • United States/West: home to the most rigorously engineered and “legal-friendly” attacks.

FireEye researchers hope that a greater understanding of the World War C dynamic will help security professionals to better understand the motivation and means of their attackers, which should help them to tailor their defenses accordingly.

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About Kenneth Geers

Kenneth Geers (PhD, CISSP) is a Senior Global Threat Analyst at FireEye. Dr. Geers spent twenty years in the U.S. Government, with lengthy tours at NSA, NCIS, and NATO. Kenneth was the first U.S. Representative to the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Estonia and is the author of "Strategic Cyber Security", Editor of "The Virtual Battlefield: Perspectives on Cyber Warfare", Technical Expert for the "Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare", and author of more than twenty articles and chapters on cyber conflict. Follow him on Twitter @KennethGeers.