Offensive Cyber Operations

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Hollywood has a clear idea of what it would look like if someone used cyber-capabilities against us: a man in a room full of screens would be typing madly, planes would fall out of the sky, there would be explosions everywhere, and so forth. According to Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. In a recent Congressional hearing, Clapper said “the likelihood of a catastrophic attack from any particular actor is remote at this time.” However, the reality is that cyber-weapons do exist, raising questions that have bearing on both defense and industry.

First among these questions is: for what purposes are offensive cyber-capabilities being used? Most of the time, offensive cyber-capabilities are used for espionage or theft. This is because cyber-capabilities make it significantly easier to locate, access, and extract information from companies and countries, as the Target and OPM hacks have demonstrated. There have also been distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks against a variety of different organizations, from banks to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This type of attack overwhelms computer systems so they can’t function, but while they are disruptive, they are not particularly destructive in any permanent sense. This is in keeping with the government’s expectations. In his testimony, DNI Clapper said that he expects “an ongoing series of low-to-moderate level cyber attacks from a variety of sources over time, which will impose cumulative costs on U.S. economic competitiveness and national security.”

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