Not so long ago, stories about cyberwar started with scary hypotheticals: What if state-sponsored hackers were to launch widespread attacks that blacked out entire cities? Crippled banks and froze ATMs across a country? Shut down shipping firms, oil refineries, and factories? Paralyzed airports and hospitals?
Today, these scenarios are no longer hypotheticals: Every one of those events has now actually occurred. Incident by catastrophic incident, cyberwar has left the pages of overblown science fiction and the tabletops of Pentagon war games to become a reality. More than ever before, it's become clear that the threat of hacking goes beyond nuisance vandalism, criminal profiteering, and even espionage to include the sort of physical-world disruption that was once possible to accomplish only with military attacks and terroristic sabotage.
So far, there's no clearly documented case of a cyberwar attack directly causing loss of life. But a single cyberwar attack has already caused as much as $10 billion in economic damage. Cyberwar has been used to terrorize individual companies and temporarily render entire governments comatose. It's denied civilians of basic services like power and heat—if only briefly, so far—as well as longer-term deprivations of transportation and access to currency. Most disturbingly, cyberwar seems to be evolving in the hands of countries like Iran, North Korea, and Russia as they advance new disruptive and destructive cyberattack techniques. (The US and the rest of the English-speaking Five Eyes nations likely possess the most advanced cyberwar capabilities in the world, but have by all appearances shown more restraint than those other cyberwar actors in recent years.)
All of which means the threat of cyberwar looms heavily over the future: a new dimension of conflict capable of leapfrogging borders and teleporting the chaos of war to civilians thousands of miles beyond its front.
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