State-level cyber attacks are cyber-attacks launched by a nation-state or a state-sponsored group against another country – what is their purpose?

These attacks can be launched for a variety of reasons, such as to gather intelligence, to disrupt critical infrastructure, or to interfere with political processes.

State-level cyber attacks can have serious consequences for individuals, organisations, and countries, and it is important to understand their purpose.

There are a number of reasons why a nation-state might launch a cyber attack. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • Intelligence gathering: State-level cyber attacks can be used to gather intelligence on other countries, including information on military capabilities, economic data, and political developments.
  • Disrupting critical infrastructure: Cyber attacks can be used to disrupt critical infrastructure, such as power grids, transportation systems, and financial networks.
  • Interfering with political processes: Cyber attacks can also be used to interfere with political processes, such as elections, in order to influence the outcome.
  • Military operations: Cyber attacks can be used as part of military operations to disrupt enemy communications or to gain a military advantage.

How do countries launch cyber attacks against other countries?

Countries can launch cyber attacks against other countries in a number of ways. Some common methods include:

  • Malware: Countries can use malware, such as viruses and worms, to infect other countries’ systems and networks. This can disrupt operations, steal sensitive information, or gain access to sensitive systems.
  • Phishing attacks: Countries can use phishing attacks to trick individuals into giving away sensitive information or login credentials. This can be used to gain access to systems and networks.
  • Denial of service attacks: Countries can use denial of service attacks to flood a website or network with traffic, making it difficult or impossible for users to access it. This can be used to disrupt operations or to make a political statement.
  • Spear phishing attacks: Countries can use spear phishing attacks to target specific individuals or organisations. This may involve using personalised emails or other tactics to trick the target into giving away sensitive information.
  • Social engineering: Countries can use social engineering tactics, such as pretexting and baiting, to trick individuals into giving away sensitive information or taking certain actions.
  • Supply chain attacks: Countries can use supply chain attacks to infiltrate systems or networks through third-party vendors or partners. This can be done by compromising the security of a vendor or by planting malware in the software or hardware they provide.
  • Physical attacks: Countries can launch cyber attacks through physical means, such as planting malware on a computer or network through a USB drive or other device.

It is important to note that many cyber attacks are carried out by state-sponsored hackers or criminal groups rather than directly by the government of a country. However, the government of a country may still be responsible for these attacks if they are aware of them or have not taken steps to prevent them.

Defending against state-level cyber attacks

There are a number of steps that a country can take to defend against state-level cyber attacks effectively:

  • Strengthen cybersecurity measures: This includes implementing strong passwords, regularly updating software and security systems, and training employees on cybersecurity best practices.
  • Monitor for suspicious activity: It is important to monitor systems and networks for suspicious activity regularly and to report any potential threats to relevant authorities.
  • Implement incident response plans: Countries should have incident response plans in place to quickly and effectively respond to a cyber attack.
  • Work with international partners: It is important to work with international partners to share information and collaborate on efforts to defend against cyber attacks.
  • Invest in research and development: Countries should invest in research and development to stay ahead of emerging threats and to develop new technologies to defend against cyber attacks.
  • Establish legal frameworks: Countries should establish legal frameworks to deter cyber attacks and hold perpetrators accountable. This may include laws on cybercrime, data protection, and intellectual property.
  • Strengthen cybersecurity education and awareness: It is important to educate the public and raise awareness about cybersecurity threats and best practices. This can help individuals and organisations take steps to protect themselves and report potential threats.
  • Engage in international cooperation: Countries should cooperate to address cyber threats and promote cyber stability. This may include participation in international organisations and agreements, as well as bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

Examples of state-level cyber attacks

There have been a number of high-profile state-level cyber attacks in recent years, including:

  • SUNBURST: In 2020, a state-sponsored cyber attack targeted, amongst others but most notably, the software company SolarWinds, which provides software to a number of government agencies and private companies.
  • The WannaCry ransomware attack: In 2017, a state-sponsored cyber attack used the WannaCry ransomware to infect computers and demand payment in exchange for unlocking them. The attack affected a number of countries, including the UK.
  • The Stuxnet worm: In 2010, a state-sponsored cyber attack used the Stuxnet worm to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program. The attack was successful in delaying the program and caused significant damage to the nuclear facility.

State-level cyber attacks are a serious threat to individuals, organisations, and countries. It is important to understand the reasons why these attacks are launched and to implement effective measures to defend against them.

By strengthening cybersecurity measures, monitoring suspicious activity, implementing incident response plans, and working with international partners, it is possible to mitigate the risks posed by state-level cyber attacks.

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George has a degree in Cyber Security from Glasgow Caledonian University and has a keen interest in naval and cyber security matters and has appeared on national radio and television to discuss current events. George is on Twitter at @geoallison
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dan (@guest_690248)
1 year ago

Crazy that many NATO countries are still using Chinese hardware for their communications infrastructure.

Jim (@guest_690259)
1 year ago

I would really love to know what the UK has developed in terms of offensive cyber capability although I doubt we will ever see it. There did seem to be serious talk of taking down the power grid in Moscow following the Novichock attack and there was also a lot of talk about crippling railway switches in lines running in to Ukraine and Belarus. From reports from Ukraine is does appear that the UK cyber capability has been next level compared to anyone else in Europe and on a par with USA all though I dare say cyber weapons are… Read more »

FormerUSAF (@guest_690313)
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim

Believe cyber offensive capabilities (e.g., Stuxnet) are used once and done, rather like missles. No one anxious to advertise or use unless deemed necessary.

Barry Larking
Barry Larking (@guest_690325)
1 year ago
Reply to  FormerUSAF

There is a very fine video online entitled Zero Days that is a professional unsensational investigation into the Stuxnet attack. Recommended.

FormerUSAF (@guest_690331)
1 year ago
Reply to  Barry Larking

Thanks for info, will check out. 👍

Expat (@guest_690360)
1 year ago
Reply to  FormerUSAF

Yep, but I’d say more limited than missiles. You can use say HARM many times before the enemy figures out how to defeat or minimise its impact, and the cost and time to do this also draws enemy resources and limits or prevents operating. Cyber attacks that use vulnerabilities are quicker and cheaper to identify and plug. That’s not to say they don’t take a toll on the enemy if used correctly they can expose the enemy to physical disruption or attack.

Expat (@guest_690357)
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim

Nations have offensive capabilities but as they tend to exploit vulnerabilities they can be used only once, as once the vulnerability is known its plugged. So most of the capability is kept for times when it will real be needed. Which will be a direct peer on peer conflict. Most intrusions in peace time are just people being sloppy and get caught by phishing and other scams that expose the network of their company or institution to the actor. West was very slow to catch on to this and a has lost trillions in intellectual property not to mention giving… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli (@guest_690393)
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim


Tom (@guest_690295)
1 year ago

Surely state level, or state sponsored cyber attacks, constitute an act of war?

Expat (@guest_690356)
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom

Yes, but as we know the public in victim nation would not necessarily support it. The state actors social media bots and trolls go into overdrive a lot which get reposted by genuine posters thus causing uncertainty within parts of the victim nations population. So we end up with the government saying we were attacked, at times very little evidence of the attack or little that can be made public or if it is the public wouldn’t understand how coding traits, list of IP addresses etc implicates a state and then sectors of the public knowingly or unknowing acting on… Read more »

Tom (@guest_690383)
1 year ago
Reply to  Expat

I take your points… added to the mix I guess there are ‘people in general’ out there, attempting to hack into all types of government systems, just for the hell of doing so, which further ‘clouds’ the issue.

Jon (@guest_690374)
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom

It’s a bit grey zone, it’s difficult to prove and are you really going to declare war on China for trolling Twitter?

It’s arguable that the Brexit decision was significantly influenced by foreign and foreign paid social-engineering, so it’s not trivial. Nevertheless waving a sexed-up document showing that probably wouldn’t be taken seriously. Divisions within our society are also encouraged by these attacks, making it harder for us to offcially respond.

Maybe grey zone attacks require grey zone responses.

Tom (@guest_690384)
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon

I take your points… added to the mix I guess there are ‘people in general’ out there, attempting to hack into all types of government systems, just for the hell of doing so, which further ‘clouds’ the issue.

geoff (@guest_690328)
1 year ago

Hi George. Ihave just made a minor grammatical edit to my post and have been consigned to the Spam tray!! Changed the word Act to Acting ?!?
Regards Geoff