It sounded like something new and bold when National Security Adviser John Bolton announced to the world Thursday that Donald Trump had eased restrictions on “offensive cyber operations.” But experts say it’s more like an incremental step in the expanding digital realm where the U.S. has been actively attacking adversaries for years.
The latest evidence came Friday morning when the Times of London published a report about an offensive campaign conducted by U.K. intelligence to counteract the online efforts of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The secret cyber operation was known as Glowing Symphony and was a joint partnership with the U.S. and other Western allies, according to multiple sources who spoke to the Times.
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) coordinated the effort, which saw operatives jam signals and obstruct the terrorists’ ability to send and receive electronic communications. The campaign also saw GCHQ spread discord by spreading fake news in an effort to sow confusion among Islamic State’s supporters. They also sought to intercept ISIS cash transactions.
“Glowing Symphony” is the type of campaign the Trump administration wants to conduct more of. “Our hands are not tied as they were in the Obama administration,” Bolton said during a news briefing to unveil a new national cyberstrategy.
He positioned the strategy as a new way to “create structures of deterrence that will demonstrate to adversaries that the cost of their engaging in operations against us is higher than they want to bear.”
But a former cybersecurity adviser for Barack Obama says the new National Cyber Strategy simply builds on what previous administrations have been doing for years.
“Today’s release of the U.S. National Cyber Strategy builds on work over the last 12 years to improve our country's cybersecurity,” Michael Daniel, who now serves as CEO of the Cyber Threat Alliance, said in an emailed statement. “It strikes a good balance between defensive actions and seeking to impose consequences on malicious actors.”
Indeed, it was during Obama’s time in office that the world learned about Stuxnet, a cyber weapon developed by the U.S. in collaboration with Israel and designed to disrupt Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. While that was a relatively isolated incident, we are now entering a new era where offensive cyberattacks become routine.
“What we are seeing is the very beginning of widespread governmental use of offensive cyber power,” Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer with F-Secure, told VICE News. “These operations are still in their infancy. Attacks like these will go on, and escalate, for years to come. Technology is changing the way conflicts are fought. We now have a new domain for waging war.”
And it’s not just in the U.S. that offensive cyber operations are becoming the norm.
GCHQ is set to significantly boost its offensive capabilities by investing £250 million ($330 million) in a new task force that will be made up of 2,000 recruits from the military and security services to tackle cyber operations from Russia and terrorist groups.
One ex-GCHQ security researcher, however, believes that while the rules globally around offensive cyber operations have certainly been “relaxed,” he believes it won’t lead to an avalanche of cyberattacks from all sides.
“It’s likely offensive techniques are deployed in very limited scenarios, where the countries involved view the level of the threat from adversarial retaliation as being less effective,” James Hadley, who now serves as CEO of Immersive Labs, told VICE News. “Using offensive techniques against a state nation could prove extremely costly for a country, given revelations on the quantity of vulnerable critical national infrastructure systems.”
Cover: In this Monday, Sept. 10, 2018 file photo, National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks at a Federalist Society luncheon at the Mayflower Hotel, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)