Governments across the world are engaged in cyber-attack campaigns against one another, while European administrations have so far fore-sworn any involvement in offensive online attacks, according to a new report by cyber security firm FireEye.
FireEye says that "cyber weapons" are now part of the arsenal governments can use in real-world conflicts.
"Cyber shots are fired in peacetime for immediate geopolitical ends, as well as to prepare for possible future kinetic attacks," said Kenneth Geers, a senior global threat analyst at the company.
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According to FireEye, cyber-attacks are a low-cost, high pay-off way to defend national sovereignty and project national power.
In the report, FireEye said some of the attacks being implemented by governments across the world include: "code so sophisticated it destroys a nuclear centrifuge thousands of miles away. Malware that secretly records everything a user does on a computer; A software program that steals data from any nearby device that has Bluetooth connectivity."
But it adds that there are interesting regional differences.
For example, the Asia-Pacific region is home to large, bureaucratic hacker groups, while the United States uses the most complex, targeted, and rigorously engineered cyber-attack campaigns to date.
While much outrage has occurred in recent months following the National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower Edward Snowden's revelation that the U.S. had been spying on its citizens and other nations, FireEye's report reveals how cyber-attacks of a similar kind have been occurring regularly.
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For example, in 2006, Chinese cyber-criminals targeted the U.K. House of Commons and in 2010, British MI5 warned that undercover Chinese intelligence officers had given U.K. business executives malware-laden digital cameras and memory sticks.
Cyber-attacks are now a new form of offense even in old disputes, such as the cold relationship between India and Pakistan. In 2009, India announced that Pakistani cyber-criminals had placed malware on popular Indian music.
FireEye warns of the effect this can have on citizens, most notably with the pro-Assad Syrian Free Army.
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"These types of compromises are significant because they can give Syrian intelligence access to the communications of millions of people, including political activists within Syria who might then be targeted for espionage, intimidation, and arrest," the report said.
FireEye could find no prominent examples in the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO )using cyber-attacks. "On the contrary," the report stated, "their leaders have so far foresworn them. But many examples reveal European networks getting hacked from other parts of the world, particularly China and Russia."
FireEye went public on Wall Street on September 20 and posted the sixth biggest first-day close in the U.S. for 2013.