Talk that cyberattacks could bring nations to their knees seemed far-fetched until Wednesday, when major banks and broadcasters in South Korea were paralysed by co-ordinated viruses. ATM machines stopped working and television reporters were left staring at blank screens. A day later, only one of the banks had its systems back online. For many ordinary Koreans, commerce and media had all but ground to a halt. There is surely no better wake-up call for governments to work together to prevent attacks.
We think of governments, militaries and giant corporations as being the most likely targets of attackers. Hackers are eager to show off their skills by breaching websites, and criminals are ever primed to steal data and funds. The attacks on South Korea hit ordinary people, prompting the realisation that everyone is vulnerable. Estonia, Georgia and Iran have been struck in the past, but we do not expect highly developed nations like South Korea to be caught so off guard.
North Korea, implicated in half a dozen previous significant attacks on the South since 2009, was the immediate suspect. But proving the source of the crippling malware is difficult, perhaps impossible. Investigations point to a domestic IP address, although where the internet is concerned, that is of little meaning. The ability to hide identities makes investigation of secondary importance to prevention.
Warnings by US officials that cyberattacks could be the world's next 9/11, with the crippling of vital infrastructure leading to mass deaths, now seem less implausible. If banking and television networks can be shut down, so, too, could electricity and water supplies and air traffic control systems. Our increasing reliance on the internet for the needs of everyday life makes us ever more vulnerable. China and the US are in the midst of tit-for-tat claims about attacks on the other, and each has highly sophisticated internet spying networks. There are no countries better placed to lead the push for international protocols and regulations to lessen the threat.