War is raging in Crimea. It is marked by all characteristics we have come to expect of modern warfare. Irregular troops, in and out of uniform, conducting operations in urban centers, supported by technology, televised all over the world in full HD. On top, is waged a layer of what we’ve come to know as cyberwar. A relatively new domain of warfare, its tactics are more likely to be borrowed from the hacker community than from militaries of old. The theft and manipulation of information trump destroying targets.
What’s most interesting, however, has less to do with how, and much more to do with who is fighting this cyberwar.
Crimea’s cyberwar is not one between two nation-states.
In fact, the idea that countries, particularly powerful countries, like the U.S., China, and Russia, will ever wage cyberwar against one another is an obsolete one. Yes, it’s true that each is spending lots and lots of money building a cyberwar capacity, training legions of hackers, unearthing hereunto unknown vulnerabilities in software, and generally weaponizing the internet. That said, this actually means that these countries are unlikely to use these forces against one another.
For one, these forces are a bureaucratic nightmare. The doctrines and organization structures are so complex, they are almost impossible to use. For a taste of how convoluted they are, give this military cyber manual a read.
Secondly, and the more important reason these countries won’t commit their expensive cyber forces in open conflict, is the fear, as it has been for sixty years, that any conflict could escalate into global thermonuclear war. And escalation is easy in a cyberwar, given its ability to cross borders with ease, the lack of clear attribution of individual attacks, and the potential for worldwide cascades. Indeed, the last is why NATO has made it clear that it will not stand for Russian incursion into NATO cyber territory.
So then who is fighting this cyberwar?
This is a war being fought by loosely associated individuals. Not members of a cohesive organization, or a rigorous bureaucracy, but merely participants of what we’ve come to know as Anonymous. This ‘organization’ is notorious for hacking the web in support of anti-war movements and against organizations it associates with bad behavior—from Scientologists to governments to Stratfor. But Anonymous reflects the best of today’s organizations—leaderless, information-driven, with flat hierarchy and opt-in membership.
These are people motivated to join the fight because they are upset with either Russia or the Ukraine; are seeking profit; or simply enjoy the challenge of hacking into complex and secure systems for hacking’s sake.
These cyber warriors aren’t damaging each other. Instead, they are laying to waste the Internet infrastructure of their respective targets, governments and corporations alike. Some of these groups of individuals have organized around umbrella organizations in support of Ukraine, like the misnamed OpRussia and Russian Cyber Command. Opposing them are CyberBerkut and Anonymous Ukraine.
But you don’t have to be a member of any of these organizations to fight in this war.
This conflict is being run as an open source development effort. Anyone, everyone, no matter their location or nationality, can join the fight, change the strategy, adopt new tactics, and execute electronic battle plans.
If you’re hacker, you can support the effort by sharing cyber weapons (bots, worms) you’ve built or any intelligence on vulnerable targets of opportunity you’ve uncovered (an insecure firewall, for example). Joining the development effort for each faction is simple. Join the discussions for each group, on the various message boards, on IRC, and work your way inward. You can even start on Twitter by following #OpRussia.
All without putting your life at risk.
It’s a new kind of war
It’s the type of war we are going to see lots of in the future. Where the governments involved, the instigators even, also happen to play the role of victims and bystanders, but the primary participants are loose bands of technologically-empowered individuals.