Cyber Wargames: Rapidly Rising Stakes

With nearly 1% of global GDP lost annually to cybercrime, literally everyone has a stake in this game, and cyber warfare operations have become an evolve-or-lose gaming arena.

December 28, 2021, Hanna Veltheim

For more than 13 years, NATO has conducted cyber wargames that simulate complex decision-making in cyberspace, spanning the intersections of infrastructures and political alliances. The focus, along with the invitation list, has widened to include all forms of cybersecurity, and in 2020, white-hat hackers were included for the first time. So what exactly does the future of cybercrime look like? Let the (war)games begin.

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The players

• Hackers: unpredictable and motivated by money, power, prestige or any combination of the three.

• Cybersecurity: experts and international organisations writing their defensive strategies based on the post-mortem findings of successful cyberattacks.

• Decision-makers: CEOs, corporate boards, world leaders and government agencies deciding who to pay for advice, who to pay for data and whether or not to pay when their cybersecurity fails.


The pieces

Individuals are usually unwitting pawns, creating breadcrumb data trails that are swept up and aggregated for profit. But the rise in spyware is turning individuals into hacker accomplices. “Zero-click attacks” turn smartphones into data, audio and video recorders without the phone’s owner having to enable it.

Retailer networks are a prime target for ransomware attacks, with hackers banking on extorting big payouts from large, profitable organisations. Retailer data garners much interest on the dark web, accounting for 36% of anonymous views. Every second of downtime suffered by a retailer drives down profits, sales and customer confidence, and brings cybersecurity to the top of board agendas.

Governments don’t suffer financially the way retailers do. If Retailer A’s site is down, consumers move on to Retailer B. But if the power grid is down, there is no Grid B; there is no backup. Typically, these are the power- and prestige-seeking cyberattacks, and military responses are nowhere near sufficient, neither nimble nor nuanced enough to defeat well-hidden enemies.


The costs

For individuals, the costs range from a negligible annoyance (why am I seeing these ads for things I never buy?) to all-out catastrophe (utilities shut down, bank accounts wiped out).

The importance of cybersecurity in business has never been greater. Never-ending payouts for ransomware demands, rebuilding customer confidence and recovering hacked systems are rising to the top of far too many company task lists. Throw in the fact that cyber insurance only covers a small portion of the risk in a cyberattack, and the future of cybersecurity is becoming a real priority.

For governments, failure simply is not an option, and the bigger the nation, the more shoring up it must do to shield its infrastructure. So all of these pieces must remain in play to stay ahead of the hackers in this likely unending game.


Next moves: Future of cybersecurity

Working together (cooperative play) allows governments and the cybersecurity industry to keep expanding the inclusive foundation for cyber wargames. By financing the expansion of the sandbox, the diverse players will push each other, creating an array of cybersecurity future challenges and opportunities.

Siloing (competitive play) creates more challenges than opportunities to advance cybersecurity. Forced to go on the offensive without each other’s support and insights, governments will probably have to build up individual arsenals, paralleling the weapons stockpiling after World War II, and counterattack increasingly frequent and sophisticated hacks. Executing this game plan in cyber warfare operations could result in sacrificing allies or one’s own infrastructure through actions that have not been thoroughly simulated.

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