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Is the Yahoo hack evidence of an international cyberwar?


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On Thursday, Yahoo announced that they're the victim of one of the largest data breaches in history, stating that 500 million accounts had been compromised. In their announcement, they also described the hack as state-sponsored.

With massive computing power, money and organized groups of hackers, nation states are uniquely positioned to carry out large scale attacks like the one on Yahoo, according to Shane Harris, a senior correspondent with the Daily Beast.

"The scale of this one is giving a lot of people pause," he said. The fact that Yahoo described the attack as state-sponsored is a serious allegation that could warrant a response from the White House. That's what happened after the Sony hack, which North Korea was held responsible for. In response, the U.S. levied sanctions against the country.

But why would a state actor care about your e-mail and password?

Because there's the possibility that you or one of the other 500 million Yahoo users use the same name and password for other accounts as well.

"Theoretically, somebody who has this information could essentially be building kind of a database of individuals that they might want to go look at more closely. If this was a government, that might be government officials in the United States they want to look at," said Harris. "There's really any number of options that you might have for hacking somebody further if you've got some of this key personal information to start with."

That same "state-sponsored" hack language has been used to describe the recent leaks of emails from the Democratic National Committee and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. 

"What intelligence officials see now is that...there may be an effort to sort of make people in this country think that the voting system is being hacked. Or perhaps to undermine confidence in both elected officials or even the election results. And what intelligence officials are saying now is that they see this as kind of a classic, what's often called, a disinformation campaign," Harris said.

It's been speculated that Russia was behind those hacks, Harris said, but they're not alone in slyly gathering information from other countries. The U.S. and China do so as well. So, if we're all stealing each other's state secrets, trying to influence elections, foreign policy and proprietary information, does that mean that we're in the middle of a cyberwar?  

"If intelligence falls into the category of warfare, and I would argue that it probably does, then yeah, I think you can make that argument that we're seeing an aspect of cyberwar here," said Harris. "Missiles are not flying, people are not being killed [but] it does follow a pattern of espionage and intelligence activity that nations have used for centuries against each other. It's just that now we're seeing it play out in a cyber domain."

To hear the entire conversation, click on the audio at the top of this post.