Learning how to counter the growing effectiveness of cyber warriors has become a pressing priority for the West – and they’re seeking soldiers from Silicon Valley
In a country where the slightest hint of criticism can result in immediate confinement to a hellish prison camp, it is hardly surprising that North Korea’s authoritarian regime should take a dim view of a Hollywood comedy based on the assassination of its self-styled “dear leader”, Kim Jong-un.
The North Korean dictator is not renowned for his sense of humour at the best of times, a disposition that cannot have been improved by his frequent bouts of ill-health. Kim Jong-un’s attempts to assert his authority in Pyongyang have been undermined by his continuing battle against various demons, including diabetes, alcoholism, depression and, earlier this year, cancer – the treatment for which prompted speculation that he had died.
This has made life very difficult indeed for those working at his official Ryonsong Residence near Pyonyang, where Mr Kim’s irrational rages pose a constant threat to the life expectancy of his aides. So far this year he has had his uncle and mentor, Jang Song-thaek, executed by firing squad, as well as one of his mistresses and a dozen pop musicians, who were accused of making lewd videos. For good measure, he made the musicians’ families watch as they were shot.
As Mr Kim is also constantly making threatening gestures towards America, it was only a matter of time before his bizarre conduct attracted the attention of Hollywood script-writers, with the result that Sony’s US-based film division is shortly to release “The Interview”, a production starring Seth Rogan and James Franco. Except that the company’s promotional plans for the comedy have been sabotaged. A sophisticated hacking operation against their computer systems in California has led to five of their big Christmas releases being leaked online.
Despite Pyongyang’s denials, there seems to be little doubt that the sabotage was carried by their newly-acquired cyber warfare wing in retaliation for a film that the regime has denounced as the work of “gangster moviemakers”. Describing the storyline as a “wanton act of terror”, North Korea’s state-controlled media warned Hollywood to expect “merciless countermeasures”.
We will have to wait and see just how far Pyongyang is prepared to go in taking revenge for Hollywood’s impuning of Mr Kim, but perhaps the most surprising – and alarming – aspect of the attack is that a relatively under-developed country such as North Korea has acquired the technological know-how to breach the security systems of one of the world’s most advanced computer firms. The success of Sony’s brand relies as much on its computer business as its film and television divisions, and the fact that its computers can be infiltrated by such a relative newcomer to cyber warfare indicates just how rapidly this new form of conflict is advancing.
Only a decade ago, when the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan were prosecuted by conventional armies, it seemed inconceivable that state-on-state aggression could be waged from a computer terminal. Yet today’s battlefield is increasingly dominated by remote control technology, whether it is the pilotless drones being used to monitor the activities of Islamic State (Isil) militants, or the ingenious exploitation of new technology to destabilise the enemy.
Isil’s use of cyber has been limited, thus far, to primitive videos claiming to depict the brutal murder of its captives, the effectiveness of which lies mainly in their propaganda value. But the terrorists make no secret of their desire to employ more sophisticated cyber methods to immobilise entire cities.
This is certainly also the aim of countries such as Russia, which first deployed its cyber expertise in anger during its brief war with Georgia in the summer of 2008, and has recently intensified its cyber attacks on Ukraine as part of its effort to bolster pro-Russian separatists. China is another country that relies increasingly on its superiority in cyber warfare to defend its interests. Their most recent victims have been Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrators, who were the recipients of a specially-designed bug designed to knock out their mobile phones and computers, thereby limiting their ability to communicate and coordinate their protests.
Learning how to counter the growing effectiveness of cyber warriors has become a pressing priority for the West’s military commanders; the US in particular is investing heavily in its new cyber command. At a recent briefing in Washington, Lt. Gen Robert Brown, who is overseeing the modernisation of the US Army, outlined his plans to embrace what he described as the “Google kids” generation to enhance America’s fighting capabilities.
While California’s Silicon Valley might be home to some of the world’s finest young computer brains, not many of them boast the physical attributes traditionally required for the demands of life in the American military. But if countries like the US and allies such as Britain are to mount a successful defence against cyber attacks, then we need to change the way we think about future wars as well as who we get to fight them.