The following story by Nikolas Katsimpras was the winner of the Art of Future Warfare project “Great War” war-art challenge that called for a front-page style dispatch from the outbreak of the next major global conflict.
Coffee, Wi-Fi and the Moon
The unknown story of the greatest cyber war of them all
By NIKOLAS KATSIMPRAS MAY 28, 2020
CLICK! CLACK! DING! After more than 40 years, the vintage thumping sound of dusty Underwood, Olivetti and Remington typewriters filled, once again, the New York Gazette editorial room. Looking down the rows of desks, the gloomy floor is filled with the flickering light of hundreds of candles bouncing off the lifeless, pitch-black computer screens.
Today is the 24th day of continuous blackouts in New York, Washington DC, Moscow and hundreds more cities worldwide. It is considered to be only the beginning of a spiraling conflict. Who could have imagined though, that the greatest escalation of the 21st century might have started with a single cup of coffee?
On that fateful morning of May 4th, Russian President Vladimir Putin passed with his entourage in front of the Starbucks located at Ohotnyy Ryad Street, just walking distance from Kremlin. Putin’s fourth term could eventually have broken the twenty year presidency mark, had he not died the minute he stepped foot inside the store. For the first time in weeks, new information has emerged shedding light to the burning questions of what has transpired since.
The initial estimations of the cause of death involved complications due to Putin’s heart operation at the Moscow Cardiological Center in 2019, about a year after the elections. However, GRU, Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, almost instantly accused the US of having interfered with Putin’s pacemaker.
President Putin’s active lifestyle demanded an enhanced pacemaker that allowed his doctor to monitor his health from afar over the Internet. Its manufacturer, Russian Elestim-Cardio, has long vouched for the bulletproof security of its Wi-Fi enabled pacemakers, which is why Putin selected the relatively small, but local company. For Putin, this was a testament of faith, in an effort to promote Russian engineering.
According to confidential reports by top Russian officials, their intelligence community has been investigating three scenarios, all of which include the Wi-Fi capabilities of the implant. These scenarios refer to a long known vulnerability of Wi-Fi enabled pacemakers and the way they connect to wireless networks. This was also the reason why former US Vice President Dick Cheney replaced his defibrillator in 2012 for a non-wireless version, which he maintained until his passing in 2016.
According to the first scenario, hackers had infiltrated the wireless networks of Starbucks in Moscow, selectively changing the networks’ names and identifiers. This way, they masked them as familiar networks for various pacemakers, cell phones and other Wi-Fi enabled devices, to trick them into connecting automatically. When Putin entered the store, hackers took full control over the device.
The second theory is based on the same network-imitating principles, but requires the use of a microdrone near Putin, in order to create a hotspot with the same effect. The microscopic drone would have been able to create a Wi-Fi network to control devices in its vicinity, while connecting to its user via the mobile network.
The third scenario is the most probable one, according to experts, and includes Putin’s doctor himself. Dr. Renat S. Akchurin was the one responsible for prolonging President Yeltsin’s life enough for him to win the 1996 elections, and eventually select Vladimir Putin as his successor. He was also the one who performed the 2019 operation, saving Putin’s life. The irony is that he might have, in the end, cost him his life due to his browsing habits.
Elestim-Cardio claims that the security of its devices is impeccable and that every hacking incident in the past involved individuals breaching the strict security protocols. According to the Russian medical technology company, any new software application has to be approved by the hospital and company security teams. Dr. Akchurin has been accused of being quite lax with such security protocols and frequently checking Mr. Putin’s signs through his personal laptop. Had he failed to follow the appropriate security directions, his laptop would not have been a challenge for any skilled hacker. Dr. Akchurin’s laptop might therefore have been the Trojan horse into Putin’s heart.
In a political perfect storm, the demise of the Russian president came at a period of record high tensions between the US and Russia. Kremlin’s plan to pursue their extensive moon mining operations of Helium-3 has further deteriorated the US – Russian relations, which had already been in decline since the 2014 Crimea crisis. According to Russian newspaper Pravda, 2020 has been the year that Russia launches its industrial mining of Helium-3 on the Moon. Numerous resources have confirmed that there are serious delays in the program, but Russian officials still claim to be much closer than anyone else.
Helium-3 is a rare non-radioactive isotope of helium, considered as the second-generation nuclear fusion fuel. It is energetically immensely dense and does not produce nuclear waste. According to Dr. Kulcinski, of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, 40 tons of He-3 can provide the entire electrical consumption of the US for a year. Dr. Kulcinski claims that at $1 billion a ton, “the energy cost of He-3 is equivalent to oil at $7 per barrel.” The Moon contains ten times more energy in He-3 than all the economically recoverable coal, oil and natural gas on the Earth. According to various estimates, a ton of Helium-3 would cost $800 million to bring back to Earth, with a market price of $10 billion per ton, which makes it highly profitable.
US, Russia, China and India have been racing to both build the first Helium-3 nuclear plant, as well as mining He-3 from the Moon. Despite its rarity on Earth, it is abundant on the lunar surface.
As a result, for the past several years, tensions have been escalating due to the absence of an agreed international legal framework for economic exploitation of the Moon. Different lunar areas contain different amounts of He-03, transferring the geopolitical games of the past centuries onto the virgin surface of our satellite.
Putin’s Russian pride would have never accepted to be beaten to the moon by the US again, which is why he was adamant about Russia being the first to mine there. The alleged assassination of Vladimir Putin is considered as a direct attack to Russia and a threat to its number one strategic priority.
Instigated cyber rumors about US involvement in the hacking of the pacemaker spread like a digital wildfire, causing the collapse of the markets worldwide. US cyber black ops were extensively blamed for the attack, resulting into the colossal mobilization of the Russian hacking mechanism.
The Russian response was immediate, launching a catastrophic hacking attack on the US power grid, Wall Street, hospitals, traffic lights and airports. The attack used an immense web of latent threats that have been placed inside the American grid for years, as safeguards. Russia, having drawn experience from Stuxnet practices, had created a highly complex, undetectable web of viruses that remained dormant in the greater American system. The aging US infrastructure, the minimal oversight over the security systems of private energy companies, and the element of surprise, caused a total systemic failure.
Fortunately, the network of land based nuclear missile sites has been shielded by such attacks. Despite the multiple cultural and personnel performance issues of the past, the outdated, offline technology of the system, along with its mechanical safeguards, have been able to protect it from modern online threats. This does not apply to the nuclear plants, which can easily be manipulated into an escalating meltdown without any notification. Iran was the first to realize the potential of these highly sophisticated, clandestine cyber intrusions back in 2010, when Stuxnet virus was able to induce major damage to its nuclear program. Stuxnet remained undetected for numerous years, finally causing irreversible damage to Iran’s centrifuges, without raising any warning signs to the monitoring personnel.
In order to prevent attacks in US nuclear plants and spent fuel pools, the Clinton Administration ordered the shutdown of all operations. Such an attack could have lead to an unprecedented widespread radioactive contamination of the continental US. President Hillary Clinton had to result to such a dramatic measure, given the apparent vulnerability of the systems and the already critical condition of the aging spent fuel pools nationwide.
Russians were led to believe that Putin’s death was a sophisticated undercover attack led by the CIA to freeze the moon mining operations. However, cyber security experts around the world, including the prominent Russia-based Kaspersky labs, have been quite vocal about significant indications of Beijing being behind the pacemaker hacking and the extensive subsequent cyber instigation.
Analysts now believe that this may have been China’s stealthy checkmate to catalyze the downfall of US-EU-Russia dominance with a single move. Beijing might have indeed been successful in setting the gears in motion for the Chinese Yuan to monopolize international trading and currency reserves.
At this point, the damage is incalculable. Markets around the world have experienced an unprecedented collapse. Both EU and US technology infrastructures have been inflicted extraordinary damage. These are the perfect conditions for non-state actors, who exploit the ongoing interstate cyber warfare. Amidst the cyber chaos, banking systems have fallen apart, with information of potentially billions of users leaked to crime organizations around the world. All ATM and credit card transactions have therefore been frozen.
Considering the extent of the devastating impact of the cyber attacks, the article five of NATO is expected to soon be invoked. Could this be the first time that a cyber conflict escalated to the point of bringing humanity to a monumental military engagement? In what is, at this point, just a symbolic gesture for the state of world peace, Japan also just announced the cancellation of the 2020 Olympic games.
Our illusion of peace after the fall of the USSR now feels like a distant dream. It seems that our global interdependence has indeed made us more vulnerable. The chronic negligence of complex issues such as cyber security, the modernization of international legal frameworks, and even the environment, might have brought us, yet again, at the doorstep of humanity’s darkest side. From world war, to the sound of typewriters at newspaper offices around the world, history does repeat itself. How disappointing is it for the most diachronic cliché of them all to be proven right.
As the portable Remington punches these last words, the sun is setting in New York. Click! It is the end of May and the last rays align with the metropolitan grid. Click! The famous spring Manhattan Solstice fills the 6th floor of the Gazette with a motherly warm orange color. Clack! However, everyone is cold. Will the Starbucks crisis pick up where the Cuban missile crisis left off eighty years ago? Ding!