Overview: Cyber Risks

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Author: Paul Meyer

Chair, Canadian Pugwash Group | Senior Advisor, ICT4Peace

Cyberspace, the broad term for the system of networked computer systems for which the Internet is the chief embodiment, is a unique, human-created environment. The potential of information and communication technology to benefit humanity is vast and the growth in its use world-wide has been exponential. Today close to four billion people are connected to the Internet and a community of “netizens” has emerged.

Unfortunately, the growth of cyberspace has not been matched by a similar development of global governance for it. Even more worrisome, is the degree to which cyberspace has become “militarized” with states developing capabilities, not only for the defence of their own systems, but also offensive capabilities that threaten damage and destruction to entities beyond their borders. These trends within national security establishments of leading cyber powers have accelerated and the detrimental impact of cyber operations on civilian interests has grown. A narrative of “cyber war” has been espoused by major states, depicting this remarkable product of human ingenuity as just another “war-fighting domain”.

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Video interview with Paul Meyer

Video credit: ICT4Peace Foundation. A longer interview is available on YouTube at https://youtu.be/BveJ3V1ADUo.

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Why Our Nuclear Weapons Can Be Hacked

By Bruce G. Blair
New York Times, 14 March 2017

Article Excerpt(s):

“It is tempting for the United States to exploit its superiority in cyberwarfare to hobble the nuclear forces of North Korea or other opponents. As a new form of missile defense, cyberwarfare seems to offer the possibility of preventing nuclear strikes without the firing of a single nuclear warhead.

But as with many things involving nuclear weaponry, escalation of this strategy has a downside: United States forces are also vulnerable to such attacks.

Imagine the panic if we had suddenly learned during the Cold War that a bulwark of America’s nuclear deterrence could not even get off the ground because of an exploitable deficiency in its control network.

We had such an Achilles’ heel not so long ago. Minuteman missiles were vulnerable to a disabling cyberattack, and no one realized it for many years. If not for a curious and persistent President Barack Obama, it might never have been discovered and rectified.

In 2010, 50 nuclear-armed Minuteman missiles sitting in underground silos in Wyoming mysteriously disappeared from their launching crews’ monitors for nearly an hour. The crews could not have fired the missiles on presidential orders or discerned whether an enemy was trying to launch them. Was this a technical malfunction or was it something sinister? Had a hacker discovered an electronic back door to cut the links? For all the crews knew, someone had put all 50 missiles into countdown to launch. The missiles were designed to fire instantly as soon as they received a short stream of computer code, and they are indifferent about the code’s source.

It was a harrowing scene, and apprehension rippled all the way to the White House. Hackers were constantly bombarding our nuclear networks, and it was considered possible that they had breached the firewalls. The Air Force quickly determined that an improperly installed circuit card in an underground computer was responsible for the lockout, and the problem was fixed.

But President Obama was not satisfied and ordered investigators to continue to look for similar vulnerabilities. Sure enough, they turned up deficiencies, according to officials involved in the investigation.

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Censored Contagion: How Information on the Coronavirus is Managed on Chinese Social Media

By Lotus Ruan, Jeffrey Knockel, and Masashi Crete-Nishihata
The Citizen Lab (University of Toronto), 3 March 2020

Article Excerpt(s): From the Key Findings Section:

1) “YY, a live-streaming platform in China, began to censor keywords related to the coronavirus outbreak on December 31, 2019, a day after doctors (including the late Dr. Li Wenliang) tried to warn the public about the then unknown virus.

2) WeChat broadly censored coronavirus-related content (including critical and neutral information) and expanded the scope of censorship in February 2020. Censored content included criticism of government, rumours and speculative information on the epidemic, references to Dr. Li Wenliang, and neutral references to Chinese government efforts on handling the outbreak that had been reported on state media.

3) Many of the censorship rules are broad and effectively block messages that include names for the virus or sources for information about it. Such rules may restrict vital communication related to disease information and prevention.”

From the Article Itself:

(Regarding one of the methods of censorship):

“YY censors keywords client-side meaning that all of the rules to perform censorship are found inside of the application. YY has a built-in list of keywords that it uses to perform checks to determine if any of these keywords are present in a chat message before a message is sent. If a message contains a keyword from the list, then the message is not sent. The application downloads an updated keyword list each time it is run, which means the lists can change over time.

WeChat censors content server-side meaning that all the rules to perform censorship are on a remote server. When a message is sent from one WeChat user to another, it passes through a server managed by Tencent (WeChat’s parent company) that detects if the message includes blacklisted keywords before a message is sent to the recipient. Documenting censorship on a system with a server-side implementation requires devising a sample of keywords to test, running those keywords through the app, and recording the results. In previous work, we developed an automated system for testing content on WeChat to determine if it is censored.”


“On December 31, 2019, a day after Dr. Li Wenliang and seven others warned of the COVID-19 outbreak in WeChat groups, YY added 45 keywords to its blacklist, all of which made references to the then unknown virus that displayed symptoms similar to SARS (the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic that started in southern China and spread globally in 2003).

Among the 45 censored keywords related to the COVID-19 outbreak, 40 are in simplified Chinese and five in traditional Chinese. These keywords include factual descriptions of the flu-like pneumonia disease, references to the name of the location considered as the source of the novel virus, local government agencies in Wuhan, and discussions of the similarity between the outbreak in Wuhan and SARS. Many of these keywords such as “沙士变异” (SARS variation) are very broad and effectively block general references to the virus.”

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Six Reasons the Kremlin Spreads Disinformation About the Coronavirus [Analysis]

By Jakob Kalenský
Digital Forensic Research Lab (Atlantic Council), 24 March 2020

Article Excerpt(s):

“A recent internal report published by the European Union’s diplomatic service revealed that pro-Kremlin media have mounted a “significant disinformation campaign” about the COVID-19 pandemic aimed at Europe. Previous statements by Western officials, including acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Philip Reeker, warning of the campaign suggested that its contours were already visible by the end of February 2020.
The Kremlin’s long-term strategic goal in the information sphere is enduring and stable: undermining Western unity while strengthening Kremlin influence. Pro-Kremlin information operations employ six complementary tactics to achieve that goal, and the ongoing disinformation campaign on COVID-19 is no exception.

1. Spread anti-US, anti-Western, and anti-NATO messages to weaken them

Russian media started spreading false accusations that COVID-19 was a biological weapon manufactured by the United States in late January. The claim has appeared in other languages since then. This messaging is in line with decades of Soviet and Russian propaganda that has been fabricating stories about various diseases allegedly being a U.S. creation at least since 1949.
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Cyberattacks on Our Wastewater?

I saw a video by Vice News about the vulnerability of water and wastewater (sewage) treatment plants. Apparently many of the systems are being digitized and monitored remotely. As such, they become increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks. The video focused on some research in Israel around protecting these vital infrastructure locations and demonstrated how easy it is to hack the system. Alarming news to watch. What other infrastructure is vulnerable to cyber security threats?

Getting ahead of the Christchurch Call

By Alistair Knott, Newsroom, Oct 20, 2019

Instead of using what amounts to censorship, tech companies signed up to the Christchurch Call would be wise to adopt a more preventative tactic, writes the University of Otago’s Alistair Knott:

We have heard a lot recently from the world’s tech giants about what they are doing to implement the pledge they signed up to in the Christchurch Call. But one recent announcement may signal a particularly interesting development. As reported in the New Zealand Herald, the world’s social media giants ‘agreed to join forces to research how their business models can lead to radicalisation’. This marks an interesting change from a reactive approach to online extremism, to a preventative approach.

Until now, the tech companies’ focus has been on improving their methods for identifying video footage of terrorist attacks when it is uploaded, or as soon as possible afterwards. To this end, Facebook has improved its AI algorithm for automatically classifying video content, to make it better at recognising (and then blocking, or removing) footage of live shooting events. The algorithm in question is a classifier, which learns through a training process. In this case, the ‘training items’ are videos, showing a mixture of real shootings and other miscellaneous events.

The Christchurch Call basically commits tech companies to implementing some form of Internet censorship. The methods adopted so far have been quite heavy-handed: they either involve preventing content being uploaded, or removing content already online, or blocking content in user search queries. Such moves are always closely scrutinised by digital freedom advocates. Companies looking for ways to adhere to the Christchurch pledge are strongly incentivised to find methods that avoid heavy-handed censorship.

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Solar Storms and Cyber-Security

What role would geomagnetic and solar storms have on cyber-security? In 1859, a large solar storm hit Earth – causing the electronics of the day (such as telegraphs) to go haywire. In more recent times (Cold War era, etc.) – atmospheric conditions and solar flares have almost sparked nuclear exchanges. Are current cyber systems shielded adequately from these phenomenon? Are operators able to identify these phenomenon vs. hostile attacks?

I think perhaps one of the earliest examples of cyber-warfare was the intercepted Zimmerman telegram in 1917 – between Germany and Mexico. Are there other examples of pre-internet “cyber” (electric, digital, etc.) warfare that should be considered within these contexts?

Hybrid Warfare

“Misinformation poses the most serious risk, says Futter, to “those ICBMs in the US and Russia that only need a few minutes to go.” Simple interference in communications – Unal points to satellites as a potential weak point – could be enough to stop the most important military decisions being made with a cool head. “Keeping weapons on high alert in a cyber environment,” says Futter, “is an enormous risk.”

Beyza Unal recalls the story – related memorably in David E. Hoffman’s Pulitzer-winning investigation of automatic nuclear systems, Dead Hand – of the most cool-headed decisions of the Cold War. The Russian lieutenant-colonel Stanislav Petrov was in charge of the Serpukhov-15 early warning station on the night in September 1983 when the Soviet Union’s satellites, sending data to the country’s most powerful supercomputer, registered a nuclear attack by the US. Despite being warned that five ICBMs were on their way to the USSR, Petrov told the decision-makers above him that the signals were a false alarm. “And he was right,” says Unal. “But a cyberattack could look like that, a spoofing of the system. Some say that humans are the weakest link in cyber issues. I say humans are both the weakest link and the strongest link. It depends on how you train them.””


“In the spring of 2013, a Ukrainian army officer called Yaroslav Sherstuk developed an app to speed up the targeting process of the Ukrainian army’s Soviet-era artillery weapons, using an Android phone. The app reduced the time to fire a howitzer from a few minutes to 15 seconds. Distributed on Ukrainian military forums, the app was installed by over 9,000 military personnel.

“By late 2014, however, a new version of the app began circulating. The alternate version contained malware known as X-Agent, a remote access toolkit known to be used by Russian military intelligence. The cyber security firm Crowdstrike, which discovered the malware, said that X-Agent gave its users “access to contacts, SMS, call logs and internet data,” as well as “gross locational data”. In the critical battles in Donetsk and Debaltseve in early 2015, the app could have shown Russian forces where Ukraine’s artillery pieces were, who the soldiers operating them were talking to, and some of what they were saying. It may be, then, that Russia’s concern – Futter describes it as “panic” – about the risks of hybrid warfare is based on the knowledge that it has been used in battle, and it works.”

From Paul Meyer:


This is the submission by ICT4Peace, written by Paul Meyer for the UN Open-Ended Working group on Cyber Security, which will begin its work in September. (The UN Office of Disarmament Affairs has now posted it to the official site for the OEWG: https://www.un.org/disarmament/open-ended-working-group/ .)
Here is the submission itself:

1ICT4Peace Submission to theUNOpen Ended Working Group (OEWG)on ICT and International Security

We commend the OEWG’s openness to input from civil society, academia and the private sector and ICT4Peace will look forward to contributing to its work through a sustained dialogue. The 2015 report of theUNGroup of Governmental Experts (GGE) noted that even as ICTs have grown in importance for the international community, “there are disturbing trends that create risks to international peace and security. Effective cooperation amongst states is essential to reduce these risks”. More recently, the Secretary General, in connection with his Agenda for Disarmament, has warned that malicious activity in cyberspace has already been directed at critical infrastructure with serious consequences for international peace and security.

It is incumbent on the international community to work to counter such threats and to ensure the “secure and peaceful ICT environment” that your authorizing resolution (A/RES/73/27) stipulates. The OEWG represents the latest installment of the 20-yearUN endeavour to address developments in ICTs in the context of international security. This effort has yielded some important results, notably the consensus GGE reports of 2010, 2013, 2015. Yet these positive findings have not been adequately reflected in the actual conduct of states in pursuit of a “militarization” of cyberspace. With increasing reports of state-conducted offensive cyber operations including the targeting of critical infrastructure in other countries, promoting adherence in practice to UN identified norms of responsible state behaviour is vital. If the international community is to foster digital human security alongside cybersecurity for states it will need to keep pace with these developments and ideally steer them towards cooperative ends.
2It is our hope and expectation that the OEWG will deliver results that tangibly contribute to conflict prevention and preserve cyberspace as a realm for peaceful purposes. In doing so it will need to build on the accomplishments of the past, while “further developing” these and promoting their implementation. ICT4Peace believes the following norms merit priority attention:

1.Non-targeting of critical infrastructure including devising common understandings as to what constitutes such infrastructure.
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Canadian Security

I had only learned recently of the CSA(Canadian Security Agency) recently as my education in Information security demanded it. I did search on it and realized the agency’s name might have been miscommunicated or misinterpreted by me…and it was actually the CSE(Communications Security Establishment which I found the website for.

It has a very interesting site (https://www.cse-cst.gc.ca/en/careers-carrieres) which I briefly looked over. The gist of it all is I am happy to know we have such an agency to watch over our national boundaries and protect us from Cyber threats abroad from Russia and China and even some of our friendly neighbors whoever they may be. So many conflicting technical standards produce wide gaping holes in our technical information communication infrastructures not to mention software bugs and malicious virus activity. The average computer user is in a difficult position and has to make use of available protection software to keep themselves safe. That requires an awareness of what products are available and learning how they are used. Products like AVAST, AVGand McAfee are offering now not just antivirus but tool suites to cope with potential computer intrusions. And it seems like new tools are rolled out quickly and I find myself doing searches on browsers that have high security …like epic, brand and the like that don’t track my information. Connection through vpn’s seems to be encouraged but all these things if free usually cost the price of sales pitches and repeated upgrade offers. Choose your tools wisely and guard your IT footprint.