This Week’s “Planet Earth Report” –Threats, Solutions, Observations (Updated Daily)




The Terrifying New Era of Cyber Warfare

A group of law scholars has spent years working to explain how international law can be applied to digital warfare. This work has formed the basis of the Tallinn Manual, a textbook prepared by the group and backed by the NATO-affiliated Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCoE) based in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, from which the manual takes its name.

The first version of the manual looked at the rare but most serious cyber attacks, which rose to the level of the use of force; the second edition released earlier this year looked at the legal framework around cyber attacks, which do not reach the threshold of the use of force, but which take place on a daily basis.

Aimed at legal advisers to governments, military, and intelligence agencies, the Tallinn manual sets out when an attack is a violation of international law in cyberspace, and when and how states can respond to such assaults.

The manual consists of a set of guidelines — 154 rules — which set out how the lawyers think international law can be applied to cyber warfare, covering everything from the use of cyber mercenaries to the targeting of medical units' computer systems. The idea is that by making the law around cyberwarfare clearer, there is less risk of an attack escalating, because escalation often occurs when the rules are not clear and leaders over-react.

Which countries are preparing for cyberwar?

According to US intelligence chiefs, more than 30 countries are developing offensive cyber attack capabilities, although most of these government hacking programmes are shrouded in secrecy.

The US intelligence briefing lists Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as the major "cyber threat actors" to worry about. Russia has a "highly advanced offensive cyber program" and has "conducted damaging and/or disruptive cyber-attacks including attacks on critical infrastructure networks", it warns.

China has also "selectively used cyber attacks against foreign targets" and continues to "integrate and streamline its cyber operations and capabilities", said the report, which also said Iran has already used its cyber capabilities directly against the US with a distributed denial of service attacks targeting the US financial sector in 2012-3. The report also notes that when it comes to North Korea: "Pyongyang remains capable of launching disruptive or destructive cyber attacks to support its political objectives."

US cyberwarfare capabilities

However, it's likely that the US has the most significant cyber defence and cyber attack capabilities. Speaking last year President Obama said: "we're moving into a new era here, where a number of countries have significant capacities. And frankly we've got more capacity than anybody, both offensively and defensively."

Much of this capability comes from US Cyber Command, lead by Admiral Rogers who also leads the NSA, which has a dual mission: to protect US Department of Defence networks but also to conduct "full spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure US/Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries".

Cyber Command is made up of a number of what it calls 'Cyber Mission Force teams'. The Cyber National Mission Force teams defend the US by monitoring adversary activity, blocking attacks, and manoeuvring to defeat them. Cyber Combat Mission Force teams conduct military cyber operations to support military commanders, while the Cyber Protection Force teams defend the Department of Defense information networks. By the end of fiscal year 2018, the goal is for the force to grow to nearly 6,200 and for all 133 teams to be fully operational. The US is believed to have used various forms of cyber weapons against the Iranian nuclear programme, the North Korean missile tests and the so-called Islamic State, with mixed results.

Other agencies — such as the National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA — have their own cyber attack capabilities too.

The UK has also publicly stated that is working on cyber defence and offence projects, and has vowed to strike back if attacked in this manner.

What do cyberweapons look like?

The tools of cyberwarfare can vary from the incredibly sophisticated to the utterly basic. It depends on the effect the attacker is trying to create. Many are part of the standard hacker toolkit, and a series of different tools could be used in concert as part of a cyber attack. For example, a Distributed Denial of Service attack was at the core of the attacks on Estonia in 2007.

Ransomware, which has been a constant source of trouble for businesses and consumers may also have been used not just to raise money but also to cause chaos. There is some evidence to suggest that the recent Petya ransomware attack which originated in Ukraine but rapidly spread across the world may have looked like ransomware but was being deployed to effectively destroy data by encrypting it with no possibility of unlocking it.

Other standard hacker techniques are likely to form part of a cyber attack; phishing emails to trick users into handing over passwords or other data which can allow attackers further access to networks, for example. Malware and virus could form part of an attack like the Shamoon virus, which wiped the hard drives of 30,000 PCs at Saudi Aramco in 2012.

According to the Washington Post, after revelations about Russian meddling in the run up to the 2016 US Presidential elections, President Obama authorised the planting cyber weapons in Russia's infrastructure. "The implants were developed by the NSA and designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression, whether an attack on a power grid or interference in a future presidential race," the report said

Cyberwarfare and zero-day attack stockpiles

Zero-day vulnerabilities are bugs or flaws in code which can give attackers access to or control over systems, but which have not yet been discovered and fixed by software companies. These flaws are particularly prized because there will likely be no way to stop hackers exploiting them. There is a thriving trade in zero-day exploits that allow hackers to sidestep security: very handy for nations looking to build unstoppable cyber weapons. It is believed that many nations have stock piles of zero day exploits to use for either cyber espionage or as part of elaborate cyber weapons. Zero day exploits formed a key part of the Stuxnet cyberweapon (see below).

One issue with cyberweapons, particularly those using zero-day exploits is that — unlike a conventional bomb or missile — a cyberweapon can be analysed and even potentially repurposed and re-used. Also, once used, the zero-day exploits are usually rapidly patched by software vendors, which makes it impossible to use them again. These weapons can also cause much greater chaos than planned, which is what may have happened in the case of the Ukrainian Petya ransomware attack.



Sperm Count Drop May Lead to Human Extinction

Humans could become extinct if sperm counts in men continue to fall at current rates, a doctor has warned.
Researchers assessing the results of nearly 200 studies say sperm counts among men from North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, seem to have halved in less than 40 years.

But lead researcher Dr Hagai Levine said he was "very worried" about what might happen in the future.
The assessment brings together the results of 185 studies between 1973 and 2011, one of the largest ever undertaken.

Dr Levine, an epidemiologist, told the BBC that if the trend continued humans would become extinct."If we will not change the ways that we are living and the environment and the chemicals that we are exposed to, I am very worried about what will happen in the future," he said. "Eventually we may have a problem, and with reproduction in general, and it may be the extinction of the human species."

Scientists not involved in the study have praised the quality of the research but say that it may be premature to come to such a conclusion.

Dr Levine, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found a 52.4% decline in sperm concentration, and a 59.3% decline in total sperm count in men from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
The study also indicates the rate of decline among men living in these countries is continuing and possibly even increasing.'

In contrast, no significant decline was seen in South America, Asia and Africa, but the researchers point out that far fewer studies have been conducted on these continents. However, Dr Levine is concerned that eventually sperm counts could fall in these places too.

Many previous studies have indicated similar sharp declines in sperm count in developed economies, but sceptics say that a large proportion of them have been flawed.


Are We any Closer to Preventing Nuclear Holocaust?

“Since 9/11 the U.S. has had a major policy focus on reducing the danger of nuclear terrorism by increasing the security of highly enriched uranium and plutonium and removing them from as many locations as possible. A nuclear terrorist event could kill 100,000 people. Three decades after the end of the cold war, however, the larger danger of a nuclear holocaust involving thousands of nuclear explosions and tens to hundreds of millions of immediate deaths still persists in the U.S.–Russia nuclear confrontation.

Remembering Pearl Harbor, the U.S. has postured its nuclear forces for the possibility of a bolt-out-of-the-blue first strike in which the Soviet Union would try to destroy all the U.S. forces that were targetable. We don’t expect such an attack today, but each side still keeps intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles carrying about 1,000 warheads in a launch-on-warning posture. Because the flight time of a ballistic missile is only 15 to 30 minutes, decisions that could result in hundreds of millions of deaths would have to be made within minutes. This creates a significant possibility of an accidental nuclear war or even hackers causing launches.

The U.S. does not need this posture to maintain deterrence, because it has about 800 warheads on untargetable submarines at sea at any time. If there is a nuclear war, however, U.S. Strategic Command and Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces want to be able to use their vulnerable land-based missiles before they can be destroyed. So the cold war may be over, but the Doomsday Machine that came out of the confrontation with the Soviets is still with us—and on a hair trigger.”

—Frank von Hippel, emeritus professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and co-founder of Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security


Extreme Weather 'Could Kill Up To 152,000 a Year' in Europe by 2100


Heat waves will cause most weather-related deaths if measures are not taken, the study says
Extreme weather could kill up to 152,000 people yearly in Europe by 2100 if nothing is done to curb the effects of climate change, scientists say.

The number is 50 times more deaths than reported now, the study in The Lancet Planetary Health journal said. Heat waves would cause 99% of all weather-related deaths, it added, with southern Europe being worst affected. Experts said the findings were worrying but some warned the projections could be overestimated.

If nothing is done to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to improve policies to reduce the impact against extreme weather events, the study by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre says:

Deaths caused by extreme weather could rise from 3,000 a year between 1981 and 2010 to 152,000 between 2071 and 2100

Two in three people in Europe will be affected by disasters by 2100, against a rate of one in 20 at the start of the century

There will be a substantial rise in deaths from coastal flooding, from six victims a year at the start of the century to 233 a year by the end of it

The research analysed the effects of the seven most dangerous types of weather-related events – heat waves, cold snaps, wildfires, droughts, river and coastal floods and windstorms – in the 28 EU countries as well as Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.

"Climate change is one of the biggest global threats to human health of the 21st century, and its peril to society will be increasingly connected to weather-driven hazards," said Giovanni Forzieri, one of the authors of the study.

"Unless global warming is curbed as a matter of urgency and appropriate measures are taken, about 350 million Europeans could be exposed to harmful climate extremes on an annual basis by the end of the century."

Paul Wilkinson, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who was not involved in the study, said the findings were "yet another reminder of the exposures to extreme weather and possible human impacts that might occur if emissions of greenhouse gases continue unabated.

"It adds further weight to the powerful argument for accelerating mitigation actions to protect population health."



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