>Let’s Not Understate the Cyber Threat

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Wow. I read with some surprise and consternation an article in Government Computer News, 4 December 2009. In this article, the author portrays the fears of a “digital Pearl Harbor” or overwhelming cyber attack on the United States as overblown—almost as if it’s of no real possibility or significant impact. In short, the article states:

“What good would it do an attacker to take down the vital U.S. networks? While the damage to this country could be great, the benefit to an attack would be nil if it could not be followed up. The real threat of cyber warfare is not in stand-alone attacks, but in attacks coordinated with military action.”

While, I agree that a coordinated attack is obviously more dangerous than a cyber attack alone, the threat and potential damage of a cyber attack could potentially be devastating—with or without military action.

Let’s think for a second about how the military traditionally projects force around the world through conventional warfare—taking control of the air, land, and sea. Control the sea-lanes and you have power over 90%+ of international commerce. Control the land and you have power over people’s daily lives—including their ability to satisfy even basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter, their personal safety, and even their ability to govern themselves. Control the air and you control freedom of movement on the ground, people’s basic comings and goings. Traditional military power can affect just about every facet of people’s lives including ultimately the taking of life itself i.e. paying “the ultimate price.”

Now think for a second, about what a massive cyber attack could potentially do to us. At this stage in history, we have to ask ourselves not what elements could be affected by cyber attack, but what elements of our lives would not be impacted? This is the case since virtually our entire civil and elements of the military infrastructure are dependent on the Internet and the computers that are connected to them. If you “pull the plug” or corrupt the interconnected systems, “watch out” seems apropos.

The same areas that are vulnerable to traditional military attack are threatened by cyber attack: Commerce, Energy, Transportation, Finance, Health, Agriculture, (Defense)…are all deeply interwoven and dependent on our interconnected computer systems—and this is the case more and more.

Think e-Commerce, online banking and finance, manufacturing production systems, transportation systems, food production and safety, the energy grid, electronic health records, C4ISR, and so on.

While thank G-d, we have been spared a really devastating attack to date (if you exclude the massive data compromised/stolen in recent cyber attacks), we would be derelict in responsibilities for ensuring safety and security if we thought that was it.

Further, while unpleasant as it may be, we should consider the impact in terms of potential for physical harm or loss of life in the event of a serious cyber attack?

While many brush aside this possibility, there is certainly the potential. Even putting aside the potential public panic/chaos and ensuing loss of life and property that could occur in a serious attack, how about just taking out a single, major facility—like a dam, power plant, reservoir, electrical hub, transportation system, and so on. This is an important focus of efforts to ensure critical infrastructure protection, a public-private sector partnership initiative.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas said “Until we secure our cyber infrastructure, a few keystrokes and an Internet connection is all one needs to disable the economy and endanger lives.”

Sure, a severe and consequential attack would require ample skills, knowhow, resources, and sophistication—it is no small feat—but with the hosts of cyber criminals, terrorists, and hostile nation states out there increasingly trying to hack our systems, there is valid cause for concern.

This recognition of what’s possible does not mean it is probable or imminent. However, the awareness and understanding of our increasing dependence on the Internet and related systems and the acknowledgement that there are those out there—as in 9-11—who seek to do our country harm, should not blind us with fear, but rather spark us to constructively deal with the challenge and take proactive actions to secure the ever expanding realm of cyberspace.

The Executive Summary in the CyberSpace Policy Review that was conducted by the White House in 2009 sums it up, this way:

“The globally-interconnected digital information and communications infrastructure known as “cyberspace” underpins almost every facet of modern society and provides critical support for the U.S. economy, civil infrastructure, public safety, and national security. This technology has transformed the global economy and connected people in ways never imagined. Yet, cybersecurity risks pose some of the most serious economic and national security challenges of the 21st Century.”

We should not and cannot understate the possible threats against our nation, but rather we need to act responsibility and rationality, with resolve to protect our nation, before and not only after. As the CyberSpace Policy Review states:

“The Nation’s approach to cybersecurity over the past 15 years has failed to keep pace with the threat. We need to demonstrate abroad and at home that the United States takes cybersecurity-related issues, policies, and activities seriously.”

Fortunately, our nation has recognized the potential threat and is acting, as Security Focus reported on June 24, 2009: “The U.S. Secretary of Defense ordered the military to create a unified command to act as the nation’s central hub for cyber capabilities and commanded the Pentagon to develop a policy framework for cyberspace operations.”

On a personal note, I am grateful for the many good, hardworking people in our military, civilian and private sector that are working to secure cyberspace for us, and believe we need to do this with vigor and resolve. It’s necessary in order to safeguard our future that is ever reliant on technology.

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