Image: AD / Pim Ras
Is the Netherlands really in cyber war with the Russians? And what about our digital force? "You can throw a bomb at an air base, but you can also hack the altimeters."
The Netherlands is in cyber war with Russia, Defense Minister Ank Bijleveld (CDA) said on Sunday. A moment later, the government minister nuanced that war language, but the message is clear: defense must be ready on land, at sea and in the air, but certainly also in the universe of single and nulls. Take the recent example of the Russian spies who tried to hack the nuclear weapons organization OPCW. Bijleveld: "The nature of warfare has changed." Is the Netherlands ready for this? Four questions.
1. Is the Netherlands in cyber war with Russia?
That question is difficult to answer. In a classic war it is easy: as soon as bombs fall or tanks advance, there is little to be guessed about. But how do you qualify Russia's spies at the OPCW?
Or the computer attack that got out of hand in Ukraine, which in the year saw worldwide networks, including container terminals in the port of Rotterdam. Sabotage or act of war? "There is also a lot of uncertainty about the definition among experts," says Sico van der Meer, cyber expert at Clingendael Institute. "In the case of a war, you think of serious damage, injuries and deaths, which is often not the case, mainly because of economic damage, which makes a real cyber war seem far away, even though the threat is large and diverse." Every day, digital military attacks from other countries are rejected, the government reported earlier.
2. Who are the opponents?
Van der Meer: "Russia is trying to destabilize Western democracies, with apart from hacks also complete trolls that try to steer discussions on social media, Chinese are known for their industrial espionage, but the US, for example, is also interested in data and networks from other countries."
These nations have large armies of cyber soldiers. The American digital unit counts 6200 men this year, while in Russia and China it is estimated that tens of thousands of cyber spies, hackers and IT professionals work in the government. They can remotely try to break into networks, but also up close, as happened at the OPCW office in The Hague. Complicating factor on the virtual battle scene: much is invisible and barely traceable. "You can always deny a cyber attack," says Van der Meer. "And sometimes hackers intentionally leave traces that point to other countries."
A picture of the four Russian spies who wanted to crack the OPCW network. (PHOTO: EPA)
3. What is the Netherlands doing in this area?
The Netherlands is digitally male, experts say. For example, the spies of the secret services AIVD and MIVD would like to show off earlier this year with the key role they played in the infiltration of the Russian hacker group Cozy Bear. But about secret missions is simply not spoken.
What is known: the Dutch Defense Cyber Command, founded in 2014, now has about 80 men and women (budget: 16.5 million euros annually). These cybersoldaten take care of the digital security of Defense's networks and weapons systems, but are now also being prepared to take part in military missions so that they can go to war in war zones. For example, to hack the enemy's networks, or to disable weapons or paralyze power supplies. The cyber soldier sets off with laptop and USB modem instead of machine gun and hand grenade: "If you have to disarm an airport," says a defense spokesman. "Then you can throw a bomb on it, but you can also hack and disable the system of altitude meters, then you have achieved the same, but the airport can still be used after the war."
The control room of the Defense Cyber Command. (PHOTO: AD / Pim Ras Photography)
4. Who are those cybersoldates?
The cyber unit consists of a mixed company, says the spokesperson for the ministry. "It's a very diverse club: there are people who used to be in business, colleagues in uniform but also the more stereotype hacker, with something too big shirt and ponytail."
Most really good hackers started out as a hobbyist, behind their own PC: "They want to really understand a network or computer, understand from A to Z. I know hackers who do not have a diploma and are super good," says Frank Groenewegen. cyber security company Fox-IT, which also trains Defense personnel. "As a thief they look at the hinges and locks of a house: where is there room? How do we get in? What can I use?"
One problem: The Netherlands only has about one hundred top hackers. "There is a lack of expertise, we all fish in the same pond, hackers often earn better, flexible working is possible, there are better conditions of employment" says Groenewegen. Although hacking in the public service also offers special possibilities. "Imagine you are on a mission in Afghanistan and you are allowed to hack terrorists to hack the telecom network, so that you can work on peace and security for some people."
Defense Minister Ank Bijleveld (CDA) during the press conference about the Russian hacking attempt of the OPCW two weeks ago. (PHOTO: ANP)