Russian air fighters have bombarded several Georgian sites, including civilian buildings. This is one side of the fresh conflict over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. The other is less visible because it takes place in the virtual world of the Internet.
The first shots were fired on Friday night. An unidentified number of Georgian troops moved into South Ossetia to restore there the control of the central government. Moscow’s response was as immediate as brutal: some 150 tanks and armored vehicles, supported by the air force and navy, were sent to help the pro-Russian republic.
Far from the battlefield, at their computers in Moscow, another type of soldier was fighting the enemy. In the early hours of Saturday, news websites registered on Georgian servers either stopped working or presented false information. Although no one was caught red-handed, there was no doubt that the operation was orchestrated by the Kremlin.
Among the affected websites were those of the Georgian president and foreign ministry. According to several sources, Russian hackers modified pictures of President Mikhail Saakashvili to depict him as Adolf Hitler. On Sunday, the president’s website was restored to normality, but that of the foreign ministry is still experiencing severe problems.
Georgia, too, has experimented with cyber warfare. On August 5 – three days before the military operation in South Ossetia – the secessionist republic’s two news online services were reportedly hacked. This time, both websites started to feature the logo and material of a rival company financed by the Georgian government.
South Ossetia’s officials insisted that the cyber attack came minutes after the two websites broke news that 29 Georgian servicemen had been killed in a skirmish during the first days of August. Until then the government in Tbilisi claimed there had been no casualties, with only one policeman and six workers slightly wounded.
The first cyber attack was officially recorded in May of 2007. The Baltic Republic of Estonia, where almost 70 percent of the population has access to the Internet, had to shut down most of its government and news websites when unknown hackers flooded them with Communist propaganda. Again, the trails led to the Kremlin.
Russia is by no means the only country that resorts to cyber violence. In November of 2007, USA Today informed that Chinese hackers had successfully blocked the Naval War College’s network and repeatedly tried to penetrate Pentagon computers. Chinese officials rejected the accusation, but one American expert admitted that “it’s hard to believe it’s not government-driven.”
Cyber war is cheap and leaves almost no evidence. This is why it is so appealing to many countries, even those with large and powerful armies, such as Russia and China. So far it has been practiced on a relatively small scale; however, we may soon observe more massive and brutal attacks than everything we have seen so far.
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