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...