From rampant ransomware attacks targeting critical infrastructure to historic government commitments to global cyber cooperation, 2021 has been a year like no other. This year brought us a series of ups and downs that could ultimately shape our lives, for better or worse, both online and offline. Even though 2021 has been a roller coaster ride for us digital citizens, it has also sparked widespread awareness about the threat of cyberwarfare and the need for digital peace. The number of significant moments in our shared cyberspace may seem countless, but today we will be reviewing the ones that counted the most.
As the year comes to a close, let’s take a look at the eight most significant cyber developments of 2021 (in no specific order):
In 2020, Iran and Israel started an intense cyber skirmish, launching numerous cyberattacks against one another and disrupting the daily lives of their citizens. In 2021, the two governments continued their dangerous game of cyber tit-for-tat. From suspected Israel-backed cyberattacks against an Iranian petrol distribution system to an Iran-linked hacker group leaking private information of an LGBTQ+ dating website, millions of people were caught in the digital crossfire between these two countries. With either side unwilling to work toward a truce, the Israel and Iran cyber conflict gives us a terrifying glimpse into the real-world impact of cyberwarfare.
After the United States experienced a wave of high-profile Russian-based cyberattacks in 2020 and 2021, such as the SolarWinds hack and the Colonial Pipeline attack, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a summit to address their escalating cyber conflict. During the summit, the two world leaders discussed numerous cybersecurity issues, including cybercrime accountability, acceptable online behavior, and potential “out-of-bounds” cyberattack targets. Even though it is still unclear if the summit sparked any meaningful change from either country, the landmark event signaled that governments are more open to limiting state-sponsored cyberattacks and holding leaders responsible for cybercrime originating from their state.
Even though last year’s SolarWinds (Nobelium) hack was one of the most widespread hacking campaigns, some experts are already questioning if the 2021 Microsoft Exchange (Hafnium) cyberattack could have a similar impact, or worse. According to Microsoft, Chinese state-sponsored hacker group Hafnium exploited vulnerabilities in their Exchange Server software, giving the hackers access to computer systems of thousands of private companies, ranging from small businesses to multinational conglomerates. The number of impacted servers could be more than 30,000 in the U.S. alone, with hundreds of thousands more across the globe. The cyberattack was so severe it prompted the NATO Member States, the E.U., Australia, New Zealand, and Japan to jointly identify and condemn China for their involvement in the digital attack.
Estonia, one of the first victims of a coordinated Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack back in 2007, was the President of the United Nation’s Security Council for the month of June this year. As the President, Estonia’s top priority was to bring high-level attention to the threat of cyberattacks. Estonia kicked off its presidency by holding an open meeting of the UN Security Council on cybersecurity for the first time in history, raising international awareness of cyber threats and discussing the common rules needed to establish a peaceful cyberspace. With cybersecurity concerns finally reaching the forefront of diplomatic discussions, governments worldwide will begin to recognize the need for global cyber cooperation.
In July 2021, numerous media organizations exposed Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group for selling their Pegasus spyware to authoritarian governments. Those regimes would then use the company’s cyberweapon to target tens of thousands of individuals, including journalists, politicians, human rights activists, and lawyers around the globe. Known as the Pegasus Project, the investigation ultimately shined a spotlight on the increasing threat posed by cyber mercenaries (those who develop and sell cyberweapons for their clients). Over the years, the cyberweaponry industry has been booming, filled with companies referred to as private-sector offensive actors (PSOAs). The NSO Group is just one of many PSOAs. The Pegasus scandal underscores the danger of cyberweapons falling into the wrong hands and the necessity for PSOAs to be held accountable for questionable sales.
In March of 2021, the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group on cybersecurity released its final report after nearly two years of deliberations. The report establishes expectations for responsible state behavior online, such as affirming the authority of international law in cyberspace, recognizing a need to protect healthcare infrastructure from cyber threats, and acknowledging the importance of cybersecurity capacity building. Less than six months later, the UN Group of Governmental Experts also published their recommendations on how governments can protect our shared Internet from cyber threats. Outside of what countries should do to reduce this threat, such as establishing off-limit cyberattack targets, the GGE recommendations recognize that international cooperation is essential for maintaining stability in cyberspace. These two UN documents represent an encouraging step in the right direction, as they offer governments a road map to digital peace.
2021 proved to be the year of cyberattacks against critical infrastructure worldwide. Over the past 12 months, we’ve witnessed numerous high-profile cyber offensive campaigns, particularly ransomware attacks, increasingly target essential societal services. Hospitals, food distribution companies, gas pipelines, power grids, and even water treatment facilities were not off-limits. In fact, the impact of these ransomware attacks became so severe that even the U.S Department of Justice decided to give this cyber threat a similar priority as terrorism. However, there is still a silver lining. With more citizens experiencing the consequences of these attacks and more nations understanding the potentially disastrous effects they could have on stability and safety, governments are racing to address cyberattacks targeting critical infrastructure.
At the 2021 Paris Peace Forum this November, the United States and the European Union endorsed the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace. The Paris Call is an international agreement that brings together countries, local governments, private companies, and civil society organizations to promote and establish a peaceful digital world. With over 1,200 signatories across the globe, The Paris Call is the world’s largest cybersecurity multistakeholder commitment to date. These historic endorsements signal that addressing cyberwarfare and creating a safe cyberspace is gradually becoming a global priority. Although many countries have yet to support the Call, the groundbreaking support from these democratic powerhouses is a crucial step towards achieving peace both online and offline.
Despite some of the significant cyberattacks we witnessed over the past 12 months, 2021 has been a milestone year for digital diplomacy. The increasing cyber peacebuilding efforts from governments, private organizations, and the general public shows that we have the power to protect our shared digital space. Whatever next year brings, we thank you for calling on world leaders to end state-sponsored cyberattacks and look forward to keeping the Internet a place for connection, opportunity, and inspiration.
We wish you happy holidays and a great new year, digital citizens!