The entire world functions as a computer, with cloud-based networks controlling everything, from the sewage and wastewater to electricity. It’s also vulnerable to organized and determined nations, as many of us know.
Cyberattacks by sovereign entities are often called “weapons for mass chaos” by one expert. They are not precision weapons such as smart bombs or our Minuteman III land-based ICBMs. Many collateral damages are unknown and could even rebound to cause damage to the attacker’s systems.
Wargamers don’t want to think of a large-scale attack on cyberspace. According to Harry J. Kazianis (Centre for the National Interest), a former Trump administration National Security Council member said that a cyberattack was like throwing a bomb and not knowing when it will explode. You might be the one to explode. We don’t know where it will lead, so pray that no nation with large cyber capabilities goes to war.
The key is the “oops” factor. The fact that Russia has targeted a particular sector of our economy and military does not mean the malware or virus used in the attack will not spread to the rest of the computer universe. These same computers and servers are capable of powering civilian applications, and malware is known to love to spread.
This is actually the risk of any cyberwar between the US or Russia, or any other nation. Once the malware has been released into the wild, you don’t know where it might end up.
What would Russia do to attack a bank? One method would be to attack a single employee with malware. You can disguise an email as coming from a friend or relative and include a link that once clicked will hopefully connect to your bank’s network. This has already happened many times.
However, the malware told the network to stop dispensing cash from ATMs. If the bank was large enough, millions would be denied cash access.
This calamity could cause economic collapse in as little as a few hours or days.
Here is where things get complicated. According to the US cybersecurity experts that I spoke to, Russia is believed to have compromised at least one or two US banking institutions and has malware and viruses in banks networks waiting to be activated. What would these viruses do if activated? They will most likely deprive customers of their cash, infecting the network and servers that are responsible for basic banking operations. Imagine Wall Street awakening one morning to find Wells Fargo and Bank of America telling the entire world that millions of Americans cannot access their cash. Stock markets would crash, banks would panic and there would be mass chaos.
This is not all. The malware is then released into the wild by anonymous hackers who get the source code. They attack two US banks to spite. Cyberwar is a great challenge because once you have fired off your weapons, the same code can be reused and reconfigured to attack other people.
The United States would undoubtedly retaliate in the same way. This presents another problem, however: escalation. Russia would likely escalate the war if they perceived our attack as being more destructive than their attack against us. They might attempt to disable our satellites and disrupt our air traffic control systems.
Russia is not willing to launch a cyberwar. These systems are so important that it would be like dropping a nuclear bomb to disable or destroy them.