by Austin Bay
May 17, 2017
The so-called WannaCry computer virus attack that began on May 12 appears to be a global extortion operation. The attackers demanded that victims with infected computers pay a ransom if they wanted their information restored. Otherwise, the victims' information would be destroyed.
Investigators speculate that a hacker group called The Shadow Brokers created the malware. According to the latest estimate, the WannaCry malware damaged over 500,000 computers in at least 150 countries.
At this point, no one knows just how much ransom money the extortionists have gleaned from their crime -- and it seems to be a crime.
However, this crime has all the marks of a successful "disruptor" attack in warfare, an attack designed to confuse and destabilize an adversary. A disruptor attack could cause physical destruction, but its critical goals are to disrupt the adversary's plans and demoralize him.
WannaCry certainly disrupted businesses. The classic 1930s American mobster extortionist would break the grocer's storefront window or start a fire in the shoe store's office. WannaCry burned the office in cyberspace. The immediate effect is lost productivity, and that is an economic cost. The crime also spread fear and doubt -- fear of future attacks on computer vulnerabilities and doubt about security. Even precautions disrupt. For example, media reported that banks in India shut down several thousand ATMs because technicians feared WannaCry might infect them.
Note that I didn't say the attack spread "terror." However, terrorists seek to incite paralyzing fear and seed doubt about a society's ability to defend itself.
Clever criminal hackers can leave false clues to deceive police and cyber security services attempting to identify them. The same problem exists in national security. Cyber warfare is sometimes classified as a type of "gray zone" or "gray area" warfare. Cyber attacks don't use bullets and don't leave telltale bomb craters.
"Gray zone" warfare encompasses more than cyber stacks. Russian propagandists succeed in portraying the "one bite at a time" battles the Kremlin orchestrates in eastern Ukraine as somewhere between war and peace. Chinese air force colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui explored this gray region in their 1999 treatise, "Unrestricted Warfare." Subtle attacks on an economy may be gray zone warfare.
Thirteen years ago, I wrote a column on "agricultural terror," a sub-division of biological terror which is occasionally called "food terror."
That post-9/11 column reviewed Great Britain's struggle with an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease that began infecting British cattle in early 2001. I was aware of several analytic war games conducted by federal and state government agencies that had explored U.S. agro-terror vulnerabilities. Terror attacks on food resources and production obviously threaten farm animals, plants and the food supply chain, but agro-terror is also economic terror.
Cattle feedlots, with up to 10,000 animals packed into a small space, are a potential target. Spreading FMD among U.S. cattle herds could leads to losses in the billions of dollars.
Agro-terror also produces a loss of public confidence in the food supply -- panic occurs, prices spike, fear spreads. Animal FMD may not kill humans (it can cause a mild illness), but try and explain that to a frightened public. However, its lack of human fatalities make it a potential gray zone weapon.
Agro-terror isn't theoretical, though the following example may rate as agro-extortion of a peculiar type. In late 1989, a group called The Breeders announced that it had released Mediterranean fruit flies in several California counties. The group threatened to expand its attack to other areas unless the state banned the use of Malathion pesticide in aerial spraying. The state confirmed that there was a medfly infestation and concluded that someone may have intentionally spread the insects.
Within three months, California ended the use of Malathion in aerial spraying. The infestation was finally eradicated by using sterilized medflies to interrupt the breeding cycle.
The extortionist-terrorists eventually got what they demanded.