What happens when the third world war begins

Hacker attack in the USA: This is how the third world war could begin

A hacker attack on what is probably the most important US pipeline brings back bad memories of Russia's hybrid warfare. In cyberspace, the line between espionage and sabotage is blurring. This increases the risk of conflict.

In the past, spies and saboteurs were required to hit an opponent's vital infrastructure. It was a dangerous undertaking and, if caught, could face extremely severe penalties. Today, a few dozen well-trained hackers are enough in an open-plan office. If they do not go abroad, they do not take any risks, even if they are caught and charged.

Scanning in case of a crisis

For years there has been a growing awareness that automation not only made complicated processes more efficient and manageable, but also increased the vulnerability to sabotage. This applies to all industrialized societies. There are already a number of incidents in the USA, all of which point in the same direction: America’s potential and current opponents are scanning the country’s infrastructure for weaknesses that could be exploited in the event of a crisis. No doubt American services are doing the same.

The supply of electricity, water or petroleum products is the lifeblood of every modern state. An attack is accordingly a serious hostile act, and the US has made it clear on various occasions that such an attack could possibly constitute a cause for war. What usually makes the difference between espionage and an act of war is some degree of physical destruction and damage.

Hybrid warfare aims to create confusion

In the case of Iran, it is known that an undeclared war has long been raging in the cyber underground. The great power rivalry between the USA, China and Russia has not yet reached this level of intensity. But since the Russian attack on Crimea and the appearance of the “green men”, we have known that uncertainty is an essential element of Russian so-called hybrid warfare. Especially during the first moves, the opponent should be left in the dark as much as possible about who is behind an attack, what the goals and the reasons are.

That is why the latest report on the latest hacker attack on one of the most important pipelines in America makes one sit up and take notice. It is directed against a private company, but that doesn't mean much: around 85 percent of the essential infrastructure in the USA is in the hands of private companies.

America is heavily dependent on oil, and the refined petroleum products that the pipeline brings to America's Atlantic coast are essential to the functioning of its economy and administration. In addition, the price of gasoline is a political issue: a high price at the petrol pumps at the beginning of the summer travel season puts every American government in trouble.

The attack against the Colonial Pipeline is said to be a ransomware attack. This is a popular means, because it is very efficient, with which state or private organizations and companies can be blackmailed from a distance: Criminals take the computer network hostage, and whoever does not pay risks considerable temporary or even permanent damage to their networks.

The lines are blurring

In the case of critical infrastructure - as is now the case with the Colonial Pipeline - further damage inevitably occurs if the attack interrupts the supply for a long time. Under certain circumstances, a momentum of its own can develop, at the end of which there could be precisely that physical damage that would have to be defined as an act of war.

Whoever decided to attack the Colonial Pipeline must have been aware of these risks. According to initial information, members of a criminal Russian hacker group are believed to be behind the attack. That wouldn't be surprising. Only in mid-April did the Treasury Department in Washington expressly state in a decision on sanctions against Russia that the Russian domestic intelligence service FSB is cultivating and using criminal hackers to reinforce its cyber operations. The most popular means are ransomware attacks.

Such attacks, for example in the case of attacks on hospitals, have underscored the extreme ruthlessness of the perpetrators. Now, with the attack on the energy supply on the American east coast, there is another extremely dangerous element. It is strategic daring, and the actors obviously want this signal to be understood in the US. That is not a good omen for future Moscow-Washington relations.