A wave of politically-motivated cyber offensives this year – such as attacks on the White House and the US Department of Homeland Security – show that the international arms race is now moving online, a study claims.
The report warns that cyber strikes could have a "devastating" impact on national infrastructure with power grids, water supplies and financial markets all at risk.
While the potential of online warfare has long been talked up, the Virtual Criminology Report released by the web security firm McAfee claims that it is now moving from science fiction to fact.
France, Israel and China are among the countries known to have cyber weapon programmes, according to Paul Kurtz, the former White House adviser who complied the study based on interviews with more than 20 experts.
“McAfee began to warn of the global cyber arms race more than two years ago, but now we’re seeing increasing evidence that it’s become real,” said Dave Dealt, president of McAfee.
“Now several nations around the world are actively engaged in cyber warlike preparations and attacks. Today, the weapons are not nuclear, but virtual, and everyone must adapt to these threats.”
The infrastructure of most developed nations is connected to the internet and vulnerable to hackers because of insufficient security controls, the report warns.
Companies will also be caught in the crossfire of future cyber wars between governments because so many essential services are privately run, it advises.
Last month a congressional advisory panel in the US warned that China appears to be using the growing technical abilities to collect US intelligence through a sophisticated and long-term computer attack campaign.