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Weapons of Mass Disruption

Binyamin Rose

What would we do if we woke up one day to discover that all of the critical infrastructure we have come to rely upon for our daily living, such as running water, electricity, and communications systems, had come under cyber attack and were either shut down, malfunctioning, or under the control of an enemy nation or terrorists? A better question may be: what are the security forces of the countries in which we live doing to thwart such a doomsday scenario from playing out, and can it be prevented?

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

evil man on laptopA devastating cyber attack unleashed against the United States has left computer systems that run major US utilities and communications networks under enemy control. No one can yet be certain who the culprit is. Is it Iran, still smarting over the joint US-Israeli attack that leveled its nuclear facilities to the ground? Is it China, in an act of revenge against President Mitt Romney for leveling crippling trade sanctions? Or was it a North Korean sneak attack — a modern-day Pearl Harbor — to blackmail the United States to withdraw its troops from South Korea? The American people aren’t as interested in assigning blame as they are in having essential services restored, but from the looks of the devastation, it doesn’t seem as if life will ever return to normal.

It is now three days after the attack, which began at the start of a long, Memorial Day holiday weekend. Potable water has stopped flowing. Water treatment plants have been rendered inoperable, and raw sewage is seeping into lakes and streams. Public health officials are worried about potential outbreaks of dysentery, cholera, or hepatitis, but there is no way to warn the public because the cyber attack took down communications systems nationwide.

Passengers are still stranded between stations in stifling subway cars and commuter trains. Airports are closed because the air traffic control system is infested with Stuxnet. Banks and stock exchanges will not reopen after the holiday weekend. Need some cash? Forget about it. All ATM systems are down. Credit cards can’t be verified. There are two new currencies: barter and theft. In some neighborhoods, chaos rules the streets as people loot their neighbors’ homes. Gun shops are raided and pharmacies targeted by people desperate for medications.

While these scenes may seem better suited to a modern-day horror movie, smaller-scale cyber attacks aimed at critical infrastructure are being perpetrated, and defended against, almost every day.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported 86 cyber attacks on computer systems that control critical infrastructure from October 2011 to February 2012, compared to 11 such incidents in the same period a year ago — a nearly eightfold increase. The impact of those attacks is unclear and the DHS did not say whether they were successful, but the mere fact that incidents are on the rise shows the need for increased vigilance.

“We have better levels of defenses against cyber attacks than we did five years ago,” says Dr. Herb Lin, chief scientist at the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board at the National Academies in Washington, established in 1986 to provide independent advice to the federal government on technical and public policy issues. “The real question is whether the bad guys have gotten better and the gap is widening. I think the gap is widening rather than narrowing.”


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