What is Cyberwarfare?

While no universally accepted definition of cyberwarfare exists, some definitions state that a cyberwar involves one nation-state performing cyberattacks against another; however, third-party actors can perform attacks on a nation’s behalf. Other definitions focus on the impact of the attacks, stating that cyberwarfare causes significant harm, potentially up to the point of death.

While the definition of what constitutes an act of cyberwarfare is murky, some incidents have occurred where cyberattacks were used to advance a nation-state’s goals during a period of conventional warfare. For example, during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, wiper malware was deployed on Ukrainian systems to cause disruption and hinder the country’s efforts to defend itself.

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What is Cyberwarfare?

The Goals of Cyberwarfare

Cyberwarfare is intended to achieve the same goals as traditional warfare through different means. According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), part of the US Government’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the objective of cyberwarfare is to “weaken, disrupt or destroy” the target nation-state.

In traditional warfare, an attacker commonly attempts to disrupt a nation-state’s operations, collect intelligence about its plans, and use propaganda to sway public opinion and damage morale. Cyberwar may also include disruption of civilian institutions (banks, stores, transportation, etc.) to cause confusion and distract attention and resources away from the war effort.

While these goals can be achieved using human personnel and military ordnance, an attacker can also use cyberattacks and cyberespionage to achieve the same goals. For example, cyberespionage is often more effective than traditional espionage due to increased reliance on computer systems.

Types of Cyberwarfare Attacks

Various types of cyberattacks can be used to achieve the goals of cyberwarfare. Examples include:

  • Critical Infrastructure Attacks: Attacks against critical infrastructure are common in cyberwarfare. For example, Ukraine has been targeted with attacks against its power grid multiple times in the past.
  • Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) Attacks: DDoS attacks can deny legitimate users access to websites by overwhelming them with spam requests. Attacks may target critical government and military sites or block civilian access to important websites.
  • Ransomware and Wipers: Ransomware and wipers deny access to important files by encrypting or deleting files. During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, wiper malware was discovered in Ukrainian systems, similar to the NotPetya wiper outbreak that originated there as well in 2017.
  • Phishing: Phishing is one of the main vectors by which cybercriminals deliver malware and extract sensitive information from users. These same tactics can be used to advance the goals of cyberwarfare.
  • Propaganda: By sowing disinformation and damaging morale, an attacker can damage another nation-state’s ability to effectively defend itself. Cyberattacks can be used to gain access to systems that can be used to disseminate misinformation or to steal sensitive or embarrassing information that can then be leaked.
  • Espionage: Information about a country’s military capabilities and operations can be invaluable during wartime. Cyberwarriors may attempt to infiltrate government and military networks to collect intelligence.

Cyberwarfare Protection

Cyberwarfare uses many of the same attacks and techniques as traditional cyberattacks; however, the resources available to nation-states may make them capable of performing more numerous, sophisticated, and long-lived attacks. Protecting against cyberwarfare requires deploying many of the same cybersecurity defenses needed to defend against traditional cyberattacks, including:

  • DDoS Prevention: DDoS attacks against military, government, and civilian organizations are a common tactic for causing disruption during cyberwar. DDoS protection solutions can detect and block attack traffic, enabling these services to remain online.
  • Access Management: Cyber threat actors may use compromised accounts to gain access to an organization’s systems and move laterally throughout its network. Implementing zero trust security both internally and for remote personnel – through zero trust network access (ZTNA) – can help to detect and prevent these attacks.
  • Endpoint Protection: Ransomware, wipers, and other malware are commonly deployed during malware to deny access to critical systems and cause disruption. Advanced endpoint security solutions can detect and eradicate malware before it has the opportunity to cause damage to an organization.
  • Anti-Phishing: Phishing attacks are a common tactic for distributing malware, stealing sensitive data, and spreading misinformation. Anti-phishing defenses can identify and block malicious emails before they reach a user’s inbox and pose risk to the organization.
  • Data Loss Prevention (DLP): Cyberespionage involves collecting and infiltrating sensitive data from both public and private sector organizations within the target country. DLP solutions can detect and block these attempted data breaches.

Checkpoint Cyber Warfare Protection

As demonstrated by conflicts between Ukraine and Russia, the use of cyberattacks for warfare is increasingly common. Organizations need to be prepared to defend themselves against attacks designed to cause damage and disruption during wartime.

Check Point’s 2022 Cyber Security Report provides descriptions of the cyberattack tactics in common use today and most likely to be employed during cyberwarfare. After learning about the threats, take Check Point’s free Security Checkup to identify vulnerabilities in your organization’s cybersecurity defenses that may be exploited by an attacker.

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