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A Decade of Cyber Warfare: ODU Expert Discusses the Evolution of Cyber Attacks

By Noell Saunders

The first documented cyber-attack to have been carried out by agents of a nation-state against another country, is widely believed to have occurred in Estonia ten years ago after authorities there intended to remove a post World War II-era Soviet statue in the nation's capital.

The 2007 attack crippled the entire country, freezing access to online newspapers, government websites, email and bank accounts. It was a distributed denial-of-service attack, which is an orchestrated swarm of internet traffic that targets servers and shuts down websites for indefinite periods. Russia was the suspected culprit since the country had warned Estonia about consequences if the statue was removed and the attack originated from IP addresses within the country. The impact within Estonia was compounded when organized criminal gangs then exploited the situation.

In the decade since Estonia, state-supported cyber operations have become major concerns for the world community. The Democratic National Committee email hack in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, that has been linked to Russia; and the massive WannaCry ransomware attack that recently affected hundreds of thousands of computers around the world, which is suspected to have been carried out by a criminal gang with connections to the North Korean government, are just two recent indicators that cyber warfare is on the rise.

Hongyi "Michael" Wu, director for Old Dominion University's Center for Cybersecurity Education and Research, said the Estonia attack demonstrated the vulnerability of network systems and potential societal impacts.

"While such an attack had been known in theory, it was the first major event that showed how theory became reality," he said.

Wu adds, although cyber-attacks are more familiar now, the complexity is different than it was ten years ago.

"Nowadays, these attacks are becoming more sophisticated," he said. "There are more and better automated software tools that help criminals initiate attacks; criminals do not have to be the top cyber experts."

The Democratic National Committee email hack in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the massive ransomware attack that recently affected hundreds of thousands of computers around the world are just two recent indicators that cyber warfare is on the rise.

"While we are relying more and more on the cyber technologies — by using "smart" digital systems, Clouds, data networks, etc. —cyber-attacks have a higher impact and criminals have more to gain," Wu said. "As they become more lucrative, we are seeing more organized attacks."

Although the vulnerability is still there, Wu believes the world is better prepared for cyber threats after Estonia.

"Estonia's attack has been extensively studied. We are fully aware of it and have developed countermeasures. We are now much better poised to respond to denial-of-service attacks and avoid major impacts of similar attacks," he said.

Cybersecurity has become one of the most active research fields at Old Dominion University with various projects and initiatives funded by the federal and private sectors since the launch last year of the University's Center for Cyber Security Education and Research.

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