The previous few weeks have seen a surge in cyber warfare like no other. From the Sony Pictures hacking over The Interview – a satire film depicting the assassination attempt of Kim Jong-Un, to the ISIS hacking of US Central Command Twitter account. The hacktivist group Anonymous have vowed to take down pro-Islamic extremist websites and social media accounts in light of the recent Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo. The main objective that all these hacks have in common is not necessarily to undermine security, but to create a psychological impact.
Towards the end of November, a group known as the ‘Guardians of Peace’, or GOP for short, were able to sneak into Sony’s computer systems and obtain ultrasensitive information. This ranged from top movie casts’ salaries, such as Seth Rogan and James Franco, to private emails regarding Hollywood actor Adam Sandler’s performance with his movies described as “mundane” and “formulaic”. But by far the biggest weight these hacks had on Sony Pictures and theatres across the US was the fear factor of the 9⁄11 style attack threatened by GOP. It seemed that GOP did not want the movie to be released at any cost which led many to believe that North Korea was behind the
“The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. Keep yourself distant”
attack due to the leader’s reverence by the regime. The US government claimed that all evidence pointed towards North Korea as the culprit with methods used in this attack similar to those used in a 2013 hack on South Korean companies. After the terrorist threat made by GOP, theatres at the time chose not to screen the movie and quite rightly due to fear for viewer safety. Arguably the hackers had won in forcing The Interview not to be aired through their methods of coercion. Naturally this led to the criticism of Sony for backing down, with Sony defending itself by stating that it was the theatres’ choice to screen the movie or not.
With regards to their actions, GOP were quoted as saying: “We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places The Interview be shown [sic], including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to. Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made. The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.”
One of the most important aspects of terrorism is the mental impact that the aftermath of an attack has. Regardless of the physical consequences, if the
“Anonymous is looking to not only do mental damage but physical damage to its opponents”
terrorists see the reaction they desire then they have achieved their main objective. In the case of the GOP attacks, the cyber-terrorists managed to obtain their desired response. In order to salvage a comeback over GOP, Sony decided to air the movie in select theatres on Christmas day, making it also available online for purchase or rent grossing $17.8 million overall.
Another hack with a similar fear-inducing agenda was the most recent cyber-attack from pro-ISIS hackers who dubbed themselves as the Cyber Caliphate. They managed to compromise the Twitter account of US Central Command, filling the account with ISIS propaganda and threats to US soldiers. The significance of this was that one of the most feared groups in the world had seized control of one of the most prominent US government organisations and despite their reign lasting a mere 30 minutes, they were able to deal significant mental damage. The US Central Command website commented in response: “I recognize that this has caused significant angst among family and friends who are understandably concerned about their loved ones’ safety. I want to personally reassure you that we are taking this matter very seriously and we continue to take all possible measures to keep our personnel safe.”
The recent Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, where 12 journalists were murdered by two brothers claiming to avenge the Prophet Muhammad due to cartoon depictions of him, brought the concept of freedom of speech into the spotlight. Many people believed that this was a direct attack on their freedom of expression and went out in the streets of Paris to express solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims. In response to the attack, Anonymous hacktivists have declared a cyber-war against terrorists naming it “Operation Charlie Hebdo” or “OpCharlieHebdo” as its social media hashtag. The first website reported to have been taken down was ansar-alhaqq.net, with the result of the attack posted on Anonymous’s Twitter account. Anonymous is not out just to undermine the extremists through social media and website hacks but to also expose individuals who are involved with extremism. Anonymous is looking to not only do mental damage but physical damage on its opponents also, through their veteran experience in cyber warfare.
As we enter the second half of the decade, it becomes ever clearer that cyber-attacks are more prominent in social media websites, illustrating that hacking is no longer used merely for obtaining sensitive information but also for undermining the attacked organisation on a psychological level. Cyber warfare is no longer about the material gain. If you are going to keep up with the battle of minds you are going to have to keep up with the battle of tweets and posts. If you control your opponent’s tweets and posts, you will have a major advantage on the mental platform.