Russian Armed Forces, Western District, Signals Formation, electronic and cyber warfare exercise (Russian MOD, 2016)[880]

Will US React to “Cyber Pearl Harbour”?

Cyber War Looms as US Plans Retaliation Against Russia

The US is said to be planning a counter to the massive cyber attack that hit 200 US government agencies and companies.

Although Russia denies the allegations, the Biden administration is said to be considering retaliation against Russia following the cyber attack, including financial penaltis and counter-hacking.

Ron Klain, the incoming White House chief of staff, said the president-elect’s response to the assault on US federal agencies and American companies would go beyond sanctions.

“It’s not just sanctions. It’s steps and things we could do to degrade the capacity of foreign actors to engage in this sort of attack,” Klain said on CBS.

But is “Sleepy Joe” too late?

The cyber attack was a nine-month long “virtual invasioin” that saw compromised software from SolarWinds infiltrate key targets, including tech giant Microsoft and a US nuclear stockpile.

Russia, specificlly the Russian foreign intelligence service (SVR), may have been blamed, but the real culprit remains unclear, with China also remaining a possibility. President Trump has been downplaying the extent of the breach since making it public Saturday and has kept options open on who the culprit may be.

However, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, took a different position. Speaking on the Mark Levin Show, Pompeo said: “This was a very significant effort, and I think it’s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”

Speaking further about the cyber attack, Pompeo added: “There was a significant effort to use a piece of third-party software to essentially embed code inside of US government systems and it now appears systems of private companies and companies and governments across the world as well.”

Democratic Rep Jason Crow of Colorado likened the cyber assault to Pearl Harbor, the site of a US naval base where Japan launched a surprise attack on December 7, 1941, which brought the US into World War II.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney told NBC the data breach was “extraordinarily damaging”, adding “This demands a response. This is something we have to address as soon as possible.”

Up to 18,000 SolarWinds customers were left vulnerable during the cyber attack, but Kevin Mandia – CEO of FireEye which helped uncover the virtual invasion – told CBS that he estimated “only around 50 organizations or companies, somewhere in that zone” were “genuinely impacted” by the attack.

“I think there’s still a lot of unanswered questions about the purpose, nature, and extent of these specific attacks,” Mandia said.

With Biden making war-like noises over the cyber attack, Mandia also warned: “I’d be very careful [about] escalating this.”


Image: Russian Federation Armed Forces, Western District, Signals Formation personnel take part in an electronic and cyber warfare exercise (Russian Federation MOD, 2016).

Further Reading on Cyber Warfare

Russia has deployed cyber operations to interfere in foreign elections, launch disinformation campaigns, and cripple neighboring states-all while maintaining a thin veneer of deniability and avoiding strikes that cross the line into acts of war. How should a targeted nation respond? In Russian Cyber Operations, Scott Jasper dives into the legal and technical maneuvers of Russian cyber strategies, proposing that nations develop solutions for resilience to withstand future attacks. Jasper examines the place of cyber operations within Russia’s asymmetric arsenal and its use of hybrid and information warfare, considering examples from recent French and US presidential elections and the 2017 NotPetya mock ransomware attack, among others. Jasper shows the international effort to counter these operations through sanctions and indictments has done little to alter Moscow’s behavior and instead proposes that nations use data correlation technologies in an integrated security platform to establish a more resilient defense. Russian Cyber Operations provides a critical framework for determining whether Russian cyber campaigns and incidents rise to the level of armed conflict or operate at a lower level as a component of competition. Jasper’s work offers the national security community a robust plan of action critical to effectively mounting a durable defense against Russian cyber campaigns.

Also see:

Understanding Cyber Warfare: Politics, Policy and Strategy

The Hacker and the State: Cyber Attacks and the New Normal of Geopolitics

Dawn of the Code War: America’s Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat