Forget the Middle East… The next U.S. war could start in a surprising place


Mac Slavo

In May of 2010 we reported that a well coordinated cyber attack could cripple the entire country in a matter of 15 minutes. We are totally dependent on inter-networks to perform even the most mundane of day-to-day tasks. Our enemies know this, and they have been actively testing our defense capabilities for years. Over the last couple of decades foreign governments, namely China and Russia, as well as loosely organized hacker groups, have been taking advantage of malware, trojans, trapdoors and backdoors in public and private networks as they map our strengths and vulnerabilities.

According to General Keith Alexander, commander of U.S. cyber command, the threat to the national security of the United States is only getting worse, and a massive cyber attack could strike at anytime:

The general in charge of U.S. cyberwarfare forces said Tuesday that future computer-based combat likely will involve electronic strikes that cause widespread power outages and even physical destruction of thousand-ton machines.

Army Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of the new U.S. Cyber Command, also said that massive losses of private and public data in recent years to computer criminals and spies represent the largest theft in history.

Threats posed by cyber-attacks on computer networks and the Internet are escalating from large-scale theft of data and strikes designed to disrupt computer operations to more lethal attacks that destroy entire systems and physical equipment.

Source: Washington Post

You may remember the story of the Stuxnet worm that wrecked havoc in Iranian nuclear facilities recently. This particular worm did not attack computer software like a normal personal computer virus does. Stuxnet is far from anything we have ever experienced in a typical virus or hacking attack, with officials calling it, “the most sophisticated cyber weapon ever deployed.” What Stuxnet did was to target the physical centrifuges that are used to enrich uranium. In short, the attackers (and we won’t name any names) were able to exploit physical hardware and software holes within the Siemens equipment that was being used in Iran. The worm essentially bypassed software and hardware warning systems, so while operators at the nuclear plants saw green lights indicating normal activity, the centrifuges were destroying themselves.

Stuxnet was the first of these advanced cyberweapons – but it certainly won’t be the last.

A new report from the Intelligence and National Security Alliance reioterates what we’ve been warning about for several years; that U.S. cyberspace is woefully unsecure and poses a significant threat to life in America as we know it:

The sophistication of attacks means the danger to government and businesses has moved beyond ‘acceptable’ losses that simply threaten finances or intellectual property.

‘The impact has increased in magnitude, and the potential for catastrophic collapse of a company has grown,’ said the report, which is slated to be released later this month.

It adds that it is not clear that the business community understands or accepts that.

‘The present situation is as dangerous as if the United States decided to outsource the design of bridges, electrical grids, and other physical infrastructure to the Soviet Union during the Cold War,’ said INSA, which is headed by Frances Townsend, who was homeland security adviser in the Bush administration.

With the openness of the U.S. internet, access to our water, electrical and phone infrastructures are already widely available for perusal and analysis, making it fairly easy to determine where we’re vulnerable. On top of that, most of these necessary infrastructure nodes are operated by private companies or small local governments – which means their network security is nowhere near the level of the military. The Pentagon is under constant attack from hackers and has been for years, and they are having a difficult time keeping their networks secure, which suggests that non-military systems are even more susceptible.

Like Stuxnet did in Iran, an enemy of the people of the United States could launch an attack on our electrical infrastructure, water utilities and even nuclear power plants in coordinated manner. In the North East several years ago, a single transformer being knocked out took down power for 8 million people for several days. Recently, San Diego lost power to millions of people due to what was reported as an error by a single employee of the electric company. This is proof enough that the system is ill-equipped to handle a serious emergency, especially one that is not an accident, but rather, an attack which targets multiple nodes across the entire country all at once. Mapping of our infrastructure systems has been detected by U.S. intelligence sources already – and there can be only one reason why a foreign nation would need such information:

Cyberspies have penetrated the U.S. electrical grid and left behind software programs that could be used to disrupt the system, according to current and former national-security officials.

The spies came from China, Russia and other countries, these officials said, and were believed to be on a mission to navigate the U.S. electrical system and its controls. The intruders haven’t sought to damage the power grid or other key infrastructure, but officials warned they could try during a crisis or war.

“The Chinese have attempted to map our infrastructure, such as the electrical grid,” said a senior intelligence official. “So have the Russians.”

Source: WSJ

Like an EMP attack, if physical equipment is rendered inoperable, the end result could be weeks and months without power to entire regions before replacements can be manufactured and installed. The result of such an outage on our electriciy infrastructure for an extended period of time could have disastrous consequences.

Like utility infrastructure, the country’s transportation infrastructure may fall victim to attack. Subway systems, air traffic control, GPS controlled delivery systems – they are all potential targets for cyber attack. On September 11th, 2001 there was mass confusion in public air traffic control towers as well as military air defense. And according to the official report, no one was attacking these systems. Now consider a scenario where those systems actually come under enemy attack. The confusion, panic and inability to respond for several hours could lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

The public and quasi-public sectors may be vulnerable, but private companies have even more problems, because they simply don’t have the same funding available for advanced computer security research and deployment as do government entities. Yes, security exists, but is it enough? In America we utilize electronic debt transactions, digital banking and networked delivery systems. Within each of these critical segments of the internet are hundreds of nodes, and if just one of them is taken down, it could have a cascading effect similar to that of our electrical grid.

What would happen if, for example, a cyber attack was focused on the merchant processing systems of the United States – you know, those systems that go out and verify if you have enough money on your debit card to pay for your groceries? These attacks have happened in the past, and they have affected processing systems before, but the issues are generally resolved in a matter of hours. But in a focused cyber attack, foreign government sponsored hacking groups could continue attacking multiple nodes repeatedly, for weeks or months at a time, hitting all of the different pieces, significantly impacting commerce around the country. If done in conjunction with an attack on the banking system, no one would be able to buy anything or even withdraw cash – and even if they could, just in time transporation and inventory systems wouldn’t know what needs to be delivered and where products need to go, because they may be under attack too.

Attacks on computer systems are nothing new. But as we’ve become more dependent on network management, control and consolidation, we’ve also opened ourselves up to serious security threats. If a large-scale war between super powers were to ever come to fruition, the first battles will be fought in cyberspace, with chaos and panic being the objectives.

Author: Mac Slavo
Date: September 14th, 2011

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