Leadership

Cyberwar: Reality or paranoia?


In today’s world technology is increasingly interconnected, interdependent and is relied on by many for almost everything. Communication, transport, banking, and the control and supply of everything from water to healthcare is all dependent on computer systems doing what they are supposed to do. Technology and its ability to communicate has enabled us to increase efficiency and safety and to reduce costs, but the off-spin of this is that our day-to-day lives have also become increasingly dependent on it. Due to this, cyberwar would seem to be an increasingly real threat with security experts creating scenarios such as factories being ground to a halt or dams opened up to devastate those towns or cities downstream.

While denial of service attacks such as those recently seen in Estonia can cause some inconvenience, the threat of cyberwar is something much more serious. In 1997 the National Security Agency brought together a team of ‘hackers’ with the purpose of evaluating the Pentagon's security. This team had a very simple rule; they were only allowed to use publicly available resources in their attempts. Most of the details of this operation are still classified, but it is known that the team took control of the Pacific Control command centre computers, power grids, and emergency services systems in nine of the U.S.’s major cities!

One area where major weaknesses exist is the control and data acquisition systems used to manage infrastructure such as power, water, gas, and manufacturing. If systems like these were infiltrated, then aside from the obvious loss of productivity, the psychological impact on a population could be immense.

So who would want to cause such widespread chaos? Other states, terrorists, disgruntled citizens? Reports say that China has long probed U.S .networks. The 2007 Defence Department annual report claimed that China’s military has heavily invested in ECMs (Electronic Counter Measures) and research on ‘computer network attack and computer network exploitation.’ There have also been reports of investigators finding information regarding the digital switching of power and water infrastructures on computers seized from Al Qaeda operatives.

There’s no doubt that our societies now rely on infrastructure and it’s underlying technology more than ever before. Are we at risk? Is this a new, digital cold war or simply paranoia? I guess ultimately time will tell...

7 comments
rbatton
rbatton

Common sense says leave the manual controls in place and just unplug the interface to the network when things get fuzzy....then, let the humans run things.

CIO at Alphabetas
CIO at Alphabetas

Ok. Scenario: Large Metro hit by infrastructure attack and physical attack. Thousands (tens or even hundreds) are fleeing an area. Gas stations and supermarkets are overwhelmed. The phone system is down, so no ATM's, no CC processing, possibly even no other access to cash- what happens? Riots, Looting, Assaults...

pacomj60
pacomj60

During my military career I was a part of small team who began to build a US capability then called C3CM in the 1980s. This was the very first cyber work ever done in the US. It was primitive work. However, we knew then how easy it would be to crash multiple networked systems using EMP. Over time this work advanced into network penetration by hackers after the DARPA net became the internet. Simply stated the threat is very real and homeland defense is not capable of dealing with any of these issues; however, my work has evolved into a cyber command within the USAF and similar capabilities exist within the DoD. They know the threat.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

The way programmers write programs, then the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization.

ken
ken

You state "National Security Agency brought together a team of ???hackers??? with the purpose of evaluating the Pentagon???s security". So, if there really was such a team, and they really did take control of power grids, etc, WHAT has been done since 1997 to prevent such attacks? Would such an organized attempt succeed today? And, if nothing has been done, why on earth not/

Labrat636
Labrat636

All critical systems should have redundant control mechanisms, man-powered alternatives to automatic functions and executive overide capabilities. Old analog systems should remain functional for manual control of crtical operations. For example, in certain industries where sensors and sending units send data to computer systems for processing, the older manually monitored gauges should remain functional to facilitate manual monitoring and automatic valves need a manual overide mechinism for manual control. Mankind existed before computers, we will endure their failures - but it is important to teach and pass along the "old ways" so that we do not become too dependent on automatic systems. The computers are here to serve us, not to rule us. We should not give them unsupervised control of anything.

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