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The Biggest Cyberattacks in History: A Historian‘s Perspective

Introduction

The history of cyberattacks is almost as old as the history of computing itself. From the early days of phone phreaking in the 1960s to the sophisticated state-sponsored attacks of the present day, the evolution of cyberattacks reflects the rapid pace of technological change and the growing importance of digital systems in our lives.

In this blog post, we‘ll take a deep dive into some of the biggest cyberattacks in history, exploring their causes, consequences, and the lessons we can learn from them. We‘ll also look at the current state of cybersecurity and the challenges we face in securing our digital future.

The Early Days of Cyberattacks

The first recorded cyberattack dates back to 1988, when the Morris worm infected an estimated 10% of all computers connected to the early Internet. The worm, created by Cornell University graduate student Robert Tappan Morris, was not intended to cause harm but rather to gauge the size of the Internet. However, due to a programming error, the worm replicated itself uncontrollably, causing widespread disruption and prompting a coordinated effort to remove it from infected systems.

The Morris worm was a wake-up call for the nascent cybersecurity industry, highlighting the need for better security measures and incident response capabilities. It also demonstrated the potential for unintended consequences in cyberspace, a theme that would be repeated in many future attacks.

The Rise of Cybercrime

As the Internet grew in popularity and commercial importance in the 1990s and early 2000s, so too did the threat of cybercrime. Hackers began to target online banking systems and e-commerce platforms, stealing financial data and personal information for profit.

One of the most notorious cybercrime groups of this era was the Russian Business Network (RBN), a shadowy organization that operated from 2006 to 2007. The RBN was involved in a wide range of criminal activities, including identity theft, phishing, and distributing malware. According to a 2007 report by VeriSign iDefense, the RBN was responsible for "some of the highest levels of Internet crime ever seen" and had ties to the Russian mafia and government officials.

The rise of cybercrime highlighted the need for better international cooperation in investigating and prosecuting cybercriminals, as well as the importance of user education in preventing online fraud and identity theft.

The Era of State-Sponsored Cyberattacks

In recent years, state-sponsored cyberattacks have emerged as a major threat to national security and global stability. These attacks, carried out by government-backed hacking groups, are often motivated by geopolitical goals such as espionage, sabotage, and influence operations.

One of the most significant state-sponsored cyberattacks in history was the Stuxnet worm, discovered in 2010. Stuxnet was a highly sophisticated piece of malware that targeted industrial control systems, specifically those used in Iran‘s nuclear program. The worm, believed to have been developed by the United States and Israel, caused centrifuges at Iran‘s Natanz nuclear facility to spin out of control and self-destruct, setting back the country‘s nuclear ambitions by years.

The Stuxnet attack was a watershed moment in the history of cyberwarfare, demonstrating the ability of cyber weapons to cause physical damage and disrupt critical infrastructure. It also raised questions about the use of offensive cyber capabilities and the potential for escalation in cyberspace.

Other notable state-sponsored cyberattacks include:

  • The 2014 Sony Pictures hack, attributed to North Korea in retaliation for the film "The Interview"
  • The 2015 Ukraine power grid attack, attributed to Russia, which caused widespread blackouts
  • The 2016 U.S. presidential election interference campaign, also attributed to Russia, which sought to sow discord and influence the outcome of the election

These attacks highlight the growing role of cyberspace as a domain of geopolitical conflict and the need for nations to develop robust cyber defense and deterrence capabilities.

The Biggest Cyberattacks of the 2020s

The 2020s have already seen a number of significant cyberattacks, highlighting the ongoing threat posed by cybercriminals and state-sponsored hackers. Some of the most notable attacks include:

The SolarWinds Supply Chain Attack (2020)

In December 2020, it was revealed that hackers had infiltrated the networks of multiple U.S. government agencies and Fortune 500 companies through a compromised update to the widely-used SolarWinds Orion software. The attack, which went undetected for months, was attributed to a sophisticated Russian hacking group known as APT29 or Cozy Bear.

The SolarWinds attack was particularly insidious because it exploited the trust placed in third-party software providers. It demonstrated the need for organizations to carefully vet their supply chain partners and to implement multi-layered security defenses to detect and respond to threats.

The Microsoft Exchange Server Attacks (2021)

In March 2021, Microsoft disclosed that a Chinese state-sponsored hacking group known as Hafnium had been exploiting multiple zero-day vulnerabilities in Microsoft Exchange Server to gain access to the email accounts and networks of tens of thousands of organizations worldwide. The attacks, which began in January 2021, impacted a wide range of industries, including defense contractors, higher education institutions, and law firms.

The Exchange Server attacks highlighted the ongoing threat posed by state-sponsored hacking groups and the need for organizations to prioritize patching and updating their systems as soon as vulnerabilities are disclosed. They also underscored the importance of having robust monitoring and detection capabilities to identify and respond to threats quickly.

The Colonial Pipeline Ransomware Attack (2021)

In May 2021, a ransomware attack carried out by the DarkSide hacking group forced the Colonial Pipeline, which supplies nearly half of the fuel consumed on the U.S. East Coast, to shut down its operations for several days. The attack, which exploited a single compromised password, caused widespread fuel shortages and panic buying across the southeastern United States.

The Colonial Pipeline attack highlighted the real-world consequences of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and the need for organizations to prioritize cybersecurity as a business-critical function. It also underscored the importance of having robust backup and recovery plans in place to minimize the impact of an attack.

The Kaseya VSA Supply Chain Attack (2021)

In July 2021, a ransomware attack targeting Kaseya VSA, a remote management software used by managed service providers (MSPs), impacted an estimated 1,500 businesses worldwide. The attack, carried out by the REvil ransomware gang, exploited a zero-day vulnerability in Kaseya VSA to spread the ransomware to the MSPs‘ clients.

The Kaseya attack highlighted the ripple effect that a single compromised software provider can have on the wider ecosystem. It also underscored the importance of having robust incident response plans and the ability to quickly isolate infected systems to minimize the spread of an attack.

The Cost of Cyberattacks

The financial impact of cyberattacks has grown exponentially in recent years, as the following data from the FBI‘s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) illustrates:

Year Total Losses (USD)
2015 $1.07 billion
2016 $1.45 billion
2017 $1.42 billion
2018 $2.71 billion
2019 $3.5 billion
2020 $4.2 billion

These figures likely underestimate the true cost of cyberattacks, as many incidents go unreported or undetected. In addition to direct financial losses, cyberattacks can also cause significant reputational damage, loss of intellectual property, and erosion of customer trust.

According to a 2021 report by Cybersecurity Ventures, the global cost of cybercrime is expected to reach $10.5 trillion annually by 2025, up from $3 trillion in 2015. This staggering figure underscores the urgent need for organizations to invest in cybersecurity and to make it a top business priority.

The Future of Cyberattacks

As we look to the future, it‘s clear that cyberattacks will continue to evolve and increase in sophistication. The growing adoption of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and 5G networks will create new attack surfaces and vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit.

At the same time, the geopolitical landscape is becoming increasingly complex, with nation-states using cyberattacks as a tool of statecraft and a means of projecting power. The lines between state-sponsored attacks and those carried out by independent criminal groups are also becoming blurred, making attribution and deterrence more challenging.

To stay ahead of these threats, organizations must adopt a proactive and holistic approach to cybersecurity. This includes:

  • Implementing zero-trust security models that assume breaches and verify every user and device before granting access
  • Conducting regular security awareness training for employees to help them identify and report potential threats
  • Investing in advanced threat detection and response capabilities, such as security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) platforms
  • Collaborating with industry partners and government agencies to share threat intelligence and best practices
  • Developing and testing incident response and disaster recovery plans to minimize the impact of an attack

As Theresa Payton, former White House CIO and CEO of Fortalice Solutions, puts it: "Cybersecurity is not an IT problem, it‘s a business problem. It‘s a risk management problem. It‘s a people problem. It‘s a process problem. It‘s all of those things together."

Conclusion

The history of cyberattacks is a sobering reminder of the vulnerabilities and risks inherent in our increasingly connected world. From the early days of the Morris worm to the sophisticated state-sponsored attacks of the present day, cyberthreats have evolved in lockstep with technological progress, exploiting our growing dependence on digital systems for their own gain.

As we move forward, it‘s clear that cybersecurity will only become more critical as the stakes continue to rise. By learning from the hard-won lessons of the past and investing in the people, processes, and technologies needed to defend against future threats, we can help ensure a more secure and resilient digital future for all.

As Doris Kearns Goodwin, the renowned presidential historian, once said: "History is not a narrative of inevitable progress, but a record of human choices, chance events, and unintended consequences." In the realm of cybersecurity, the choices we make today will have profound consequences for the history we write tomorrow. Let us choose wisely.