May 15, 2021
Let’s be clear, America. The Colonial Pipeline hack, threatening half of the fuel for America’s east coast and sending citizens into a gas-hoarding panic, was not just a mere bit of ransomware. Make no mistake: this is war.
The FBI confirmed that the hackers responsible for the malicious software attack on Colonial are a group dubbed DarkSide, hailing from Eastern Europe.
We need to rely on our military and intelligence community in moments like this, not an office IT team.
The Department of Defense has to work together with corporations like Colonial to protect the American people and businesses when nation-state black-hat hackers threaten our livelihoods. I know I’m always sounding off on big government, but it’s still Washington’s responsibility to keep its citizens safe from digital criminals.
DarkSide claimed this past Monday that they just wanted money. Right… A cyberattack from nation-state actors with potential ties to Russian intelligence targeting half of the gasoline and jet fuel the U.S. provides? That’s not a cash-grab — that’s geopolitical terrorism.
In the wake of all this, how do we hold the hackers and Russia responsible? And is it time America digitally strikes back?
On the American Consequences podcast this week, I spoke with Kara Frederick, a former DOD counterterrorism analyst, who explains the changing face of digital battle with the likes of Russia and China and details the best ways our country can fight back.
Hackers: Lying in Wait
By 2025, 5 billion people (nearly everyone) will have access to the Internet — and this past pandemic year witnessed a historic uptick of usage on all our devices. We’re more dependent on tech with each passing day, meaning our exposure to digital exploitation keeps rising.
In terms of groups like DarkSide, Kara claims they hide in the too-convenient shadows of a geopolitical gray area — connections between hackers and nations. There’s understood complicity between cybercriminals and the countries that harbor them — a disturbing trend of tacit state approval with these international hack attacks.
Should the U.S. digitally crackdown on our enemies? Why not have hordes of our hackers target Russia, China, Iran, et al.?
According to Kara, our party line is “defending forward” — applying our largesse and engineering capabilities to impose costs on bad-faith foreign actors. Our cyber ops strive to be more preventative than reactionary, but maybe it’s time to rethink that approach. Hear Kara’s breakdown of America’s best tech tools on the cyber front lines.
In terms of online recruitment for the likes of DarkSide, these types live and breathe in the dark web, and with our ever-growing tech immersion, it’s getting easier for these criminals to find each other.
And they don’t need a gun to inflict damage… Armed with only a keyboard, monitor, and modem, they can still rob, blackmail, or hold you hostage.
Why can’t we better equip companies and citizens to protect themselves? Former Sec. of Defense Bob Work has called for a ramp-up of AI in our efforts, reminding us that the nature of war has fundamentally changed.
America’s 21st-century military will wage more battles… not on the soil but the screen, with code and malware as the weapons of choice instead of battle tanks and automatic firearms.
And beyond targeting civilians and politicians, these black hat hackers will continue to go after critical infrastructures like pipelines, grids, water treatment facilities, and hospitals… anyplace relying on reams of data to keep running and provide services to Americans. They will take any opportunity to threaten our way of life.
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Kara notes that if you’re in the private sector, assume you’ll get hacked. And when companies are victims of cyber-attacks, they need incentives to provide transparent incident reports — they’ll worry about stock prices, but national security trumps shareholders’ interests.
Russia: A Hacker’s Paradise
So, DarkSide emerged out of Eastern Europe with possible (probable) ties to Russia.
Why is the Sickle & Hammer so fertile for harvesting hackers? According to Kara, they stick to their comparative advantage, i.e., there’s less distraction in Mother Russia. It’s freezing, grey, and bleak — you can drink vodka or learn how to code (or both). Russia, Iran, and China are dedicated and crystalline clear in how they want to dismantle their enemies (us). Stateside, we’re less focused as a people.
Americans have the luxury of petty, emotionally charged cultural spats of critical race theory in classrooms or the legitimacy of trans athletes.
And these countries fully leverage our innate divisiveness for their ends. We busy ourselves tearing each other part at the throats over Dr. Seuss while our enemies plot our demise — so in a way, we’re helping them. And they’re not aiming to enjoy their lives — they only want to destroy ours. So far, we’re letting them.
Remember the NFL “taking the knee” controversy? Did you get fired up about that one (on either side)? Yes, Russian hackers blew on the Facebook flames of that culture war — another case study in how easily and effectively foreign actors pit us against each other in the digital space. Put without a smile: they’re laughing at us.
Her comments reminded me of the quote oft attributed to Lincoln:
If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live through all time or die by suicide.
Along with meddling in our social feeds, the paramount concern would be more unilateral hack attacks from China and Russia’s GRU (military intelligence), those responsible for shutting down Ukraine’s gas pipeline a few years ago (sound familiar?)
The Chinese keep making advances in quantum computing and within a decade could break through all of our nation’s tech safeguards — that, along with Russia’s ceaseless Hacker Farm, should give us pause.
With digital war, it’s not a question of if, but when. Rogue actors from lesser states can inflict massive damage — all you need are hackers and hardware to take down a country like America.
America Needs to Bend the Rules of Engagement
In the U.S., we’re obsessed with this polished Captain America idea of fighting fair, tying our hands behind our breaking backs still kowtowing to quaint mid-20th-century war paradigms. Meanwhile, Russia and China have fully embraced unrestricted, perpetual, digital gray zone warfare towards us — proving to be a cheap, effective way to interfere with our republic.
Why don’t we fight dirty? In the Vietnam War, we fell outmaneuvered by guerilla warfare — we didn’t adopt a new military strategy then, and we’re not adopting one now.
I have a message for you, China and Russia… You can only poke the bear so many times before it rips your head off.
Our enemies are harboring hackers intent on wrecking our country — and we’re just allowing it. In terms of striking back on the tech battlefield, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Sandy Winterfield says we should — but again, the U.S. seems unable to embrace the role of villain. We’d sooner put international optics over national defense…
Listen, I know this is scary stuff. But I love this country and want us all to be safe — and that includes reminders of just how vulnerable our citizens, institutions, and corporations are to cybercriminals. Next, they could come for our electrical grid. Never mind a gas shortage… What happens when the entire U.S. goes dark?
I hope our American schoolchildren are learning how to code in school because otherwise, the chances of America winning the digital wars of the future are remote at best.
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Publisher, American Consequences
With Editorial Staff
May 15, 2021