Cyber warfare is a term used to describe the use of the Internet to wage war in the virtual world, often with real effects in the physical world. Although generally cyber warfare refers to attacks from one sovereign state on another in cyberspace, it may also be used to describe attacks between corporations, from terrorist organizations, or simply attacks by individuals called hackers, who are perceived as being warlike in their intent. In recent years, cyber warfare has become an issue of much concern among the major nations on the planet, and virtually every national military now has a branch dedicated to both conducting and defending against cyber warfare.
As the world becomes more networked, more crucial systems become susceptible to attacks in cyberspace. Although certain military systems remain accessible only by being present at a terminal on site, the vast majority of critical systems that control modern nations are now tied into the Internet in some way or another. While these systems are defended by high levels of security, they are nonetheless breakable, and cyber warfare concerns itself with finding weaknesses and exploiting them.
There are three major sectors targeted by most nations involved in cyber warfare: financial, infrastructure, and governmental. Financial attacks could disrupt the world’s major markets by taking down electronically-controlled commodity exchanges, or by shutting down web-based operations of major banks or retailers. Infrastructure attacks can damage a nation by shutting down critical utility systems, such as electrical grids, or by wrecking havoc on others, such as opening dams, or interfering with the air traffic control system. Governmental attacks can shut down the ability of government officials to communicate with one another, steal secret digital communications, or release things like tax information, social security information, or other personal data to the public.
In 2009 a report was released showing that the United States electrical grid was incredibly susceptible to attacks in cyberspace, which could cripple the nation by shutting off electricity for hundreds of millions of people. The report claimed that the grid had already been breached by both Russia and China, both of whom had left behind software that could be activated remotely to control the system. Although such an attack has not yet happened anywhere in the world, if combined with a conventional military attack it could prove catastrophic.
Many critical military systems are also susceptible to virtual attacks. Satellite systems, for example, although protected by extensive security, have been breached on occasion. If an enemy were to take control of spy satellites or satellites which feed GPS data to aircraft and missiles, it could be a major blow to the military.
In recent years, it has become apparent that the major military nations of the world are each devoting large amounts of energy and money to cyber warfare. China has received the most press for its programs, but reports have also surfaced about the programs of both the United States and Russia as well. Although these attacks have, for the most part, been benevolent, they are laying the groundwork for future wars which could be waged predominantly through the use of communications technology.