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What a real cyber war would look like

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SAN FRANCISCO – Both U.S. presidential candidates have vowed to take on the world when it comes to cyber warfare. But full-scale cyber retaliation might be hard to spot and even harder to count as a win.

“Unlike a traditional war, there is no end where there are clear winners and losers, no physical flag to capture,” said Peter Tran, senior director at RSA Security in the company’s worldwide advanced cyber defense practice.

If the U.S. were to ramp up its counterattacks on countries it thinks are sponsoring hackers that breach American accounts, don’t expect a sci-fi digital armageddon. The target’s electric grid might still work, and so may the ATMs. Think of it more as a creeping worry that simple things we rely on can’t be trusted — the machines that count our votes, the total on our bank balance, our personal digital files.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said the U.S. had the capability to stop the waves of attacks, which vaulted into the public consciousness again last week with Yahoo’s disclosure that information from at least 500 million customer accounts was stolen in 2014. Yahoo said it believed the hacks came from a state-sponsored actor.

“We need to make it very clear — whether it’s Russia, China, Iran or anybody else — the United States has much greater capacity. And we are not going to sit idly by and permit state actors to go after our information, our private-sector information or our public-sector information,” said Clinton when asked about attacks on U.S. institutions and theft of U.S. secrets.

In his reply, Republican nominee Donald Trump seemed to indicate the problems posed by cyber attacks were almost insurmountable.

“So we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyber warfare. It is — it is a huge problem. I have a son. He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it’s hardly doable,” he said.

N. Korea blackout

Many say we’re already in the early stages of cyber war on multiple fronts. Nation-state hackers have targeted election databases in several states. U.S. officials believe China was behind a hack of the Office of Personnel Management in 2014, and that Iranians were behind an attack on the control system for a dam in New York state in 2013. Intelligence sources have fingered Russia as being behind the theft and release of embarrassing files from the Democratic National Committee.

So far the U.S. response has been mainly diplomatic. The most visible example was the sanctions on North Korea in 2014 and 2015 after it was tagged as the perpetrator of the hack that took down the Sony Pictures Entertainment computer network. That attack cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars and was purportedly the secretive nation’s response to “The Interview,” a comedy about the assassination of its leader by two bumbling Internet entertainment writers.

A month after the attack, the North Korean Internet was blacked out for about ten hours. The United States was coy about acknowledging whether it was behind the disruption.

Nor does cyber warfare have to stay in the digital realm. The U.S. Army Cyber Command is just one of multiple entities within the military focused on digital protection. And the United States has long reserved the right to retaliate with physical force against “significant cyber attacks directed against the U.S. economy, government or military.”

Hot digital war

In a hot cyber war, the first line of attack would not be like on Star Trek, with spectacular bursts of sparks flying out of computers. Instead it would be a stealth attack on the enemy’s military command and control infrastructure, to keep it from being able to strike, said Matt Devost, managing director of Accenture Security and a special government advisor to the U.S. Department of Defense.

The problem is that much like nuclear attacks, no one wants to let the genie officially out of the bottle. Certainly the United States and Europe benefit the most from a free and open Internet, so weaponizing it is not a step taken lightly.

“The United States is going to care a lot about not setting a precedent for that,” said Christopher Porter, manager of iSIGHT Intelligence, which does strategic risk forecasting for the digital security company FireEye.

In many ways, digital fighting is a way for countries to engage in conflict when they don’t want to escalate a dispute to the level of armed attack.

Russia excels at this, said Porter.

“They may not go after the government they’re disagreeing with, they may go after citizens of the government, leaking documents on key political or military leaders” Porter said. “That’s a very deliberate strategy and one they’ve been very effective at.”

Infrastructure attacks

A higher level of escalation involves damaging critical infrastructure. This has already happened.

Russian launched a cyber attack against the Ukrainian power grid in 2015, according to U.S. officials. The attacks caused power outages in 103 cities and towns in the nation. Russia had been involved in military clashes with Ukraine over the Crimea.

A computer virus believed to be the work of Israel and the United States disabled a critical part of Iran’s nuclear weapons program in 2010.

Multiple government websites in Estonia, one of the most wired nations on earth, were crashed in 2007. The country’s foreign minister accuses Russia of being behind the attacks in retaliation over Estonia’s move away from the Russian sphere of influence.

The United States has an advantage in this type of attack because so much of the technology that controls the networks today was either designed or  built by the United States, said Srinivas Mukkamala, CEO of the computer security firm Risk Sense and one of the lead researchers for U.S. government research team that worked on CACTUS, the Computational Analysis of Cyber Terrorism against the U.S.

“Who designed the payment platforms? Who designed the chips? We did. So we can always find backdoors to get into whatever we’ve build,” he said.

Cyber more humane

A final advantage of cyber warfare is that it’s reversible, say experts. In a traditional war the only way to incapacitate an enemy’s electric grid or transportation system is to physically destroy them. With cyber you can take them down but once the conflict is over they can be brought brought back online.

“It’s potentially more humane,” said Devost.

Elizabeth Weise covers technology and cybersecurity for USA TODAY. Follow her at @eweise.

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