The US is engaged in a wide-ranging campaign of cyber-operations against foreign targets, launching over 200 in 2011 alone, budget documents leaked by Edward Snowden to the Washington Post have confirmed.
The US is known beyond reasonable doubt to have launched the Stuxnet attacks on Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment plant going back as far as 2005 as well as several follow-up malware operations, so the only real news here is the unexpected scale of what has been going on.
Three quarters of the 231 targets were against obvious candidates, including North Korea, China, Russia and Iran, with one hacking campaign codenamed ‘GENIE’ consuming $652 million (£430 million) installing cyber-malware on large tens of thousands of computers around the world.
The total ‘Black Budget’ used for such operations in 2013 was $52.6 billion, the paper said.
It is tempting to dismiss the fact of US cyber-offensive capabilities as being part of the reality of the early 21st Century Internet; countries hack one another by every digital means necessary. But the fact that the most complex attacks are now being authored by states is something that will have repercussions beyond the realm of geo-politics.
First, defences must improve dramatically because they are in theory now at risk of being tested by well-resourced, technically sophisticated attacks that exceed those put in place by most defenders. The multi-billion scale of the US budget devoted to these operations underlines the staggering asymmetry of what is occurring.
Secondly, commercial malware will start learning from some of the more innovative attacks and that could spell significant danger for businesses large and small, and of course for individuals.
A recent survey of attendees of August’s Black Hat Show by Lieberman Software found that 58 percent believe enterprises are “losing the battle” against state-sponsored attacks. Seventy-four percent were not sure their own networks hadn’t already been breached by such foes.
“The majority of organizations are prepared for amateur hackers and low-level criminals, but are completely ill-equipped to deal with today’s advanced nation-state foes,” commented the firm’s CEO, Philip Lieberman.
“Many state-sponsored attackers can now create perfect email attacks that insert remote-control software onto corporate networks,” he added.
“These types of attacks are very difficult to stop, almost impossible to attribute to a specific country, and a pain in the neck to anyone who gets caught in the middle of their battles. As a citizen of one country being annoyed by another nation state, you have little recourse other than to bite your tongue, since any retribution or response is illegal.”
One thing that has changed post-Snowden is how much the world knows about the US cyber-offense operations. It's still lacking detail on many levels but even a couple of years ago that the number of actions would be documented at all would have seemed extraordinary.