January 27, 2012

Cyber War - The Art of The Doable

CBS 60 Minutes had a great episode this past June called Cyber War: Sabotaging The System.

The host Steve Kroft lays the groundwork when he describes information or cyber warfare as computers and the Internet that is used as weapons and says that "the next big war is less likely to begin with a bang than with a blackout."

This news segment was hosted with amazing folks like Retired Admiral Mike McConnell (former Director of National Intelligence), Special Agent Sean Henry (Assistant Director of the FBI's Cyber Division), Jim Gosler (Founding Director of CIA's Clandestine Information Technology Office), and Jim Lewis (Director, Center for Strategic and International Studies).  

For those who think that cyber war is a virtual fantasy and that we are safe in cyberspace, it's high time that we think again.  

Here are some highlights:

- When Retired Admiral McConnel is asked "Do you believe our adversaries have the capability of bringing down a power grid?"  McConnell responds "I do." And when asked if the U.S. is prepared for such an attack, McConnell responds, "No."

- Jim Gosler describes how microchips made abroad are susceptible to tampering and could "alter the functionality" of let's say a nuclear weapon that needed to go operational, as well as how they "found microelectronics and electronics embedded in applications that shouldn't be there." 

- Special Agent Henry talks about how thieves were able to steal more than a $100 million from banks in less than half a year, not by holdups but through hacking. 

- Jim Lewis tells of the "electronic Pearl Harbor" that happened to us back in 2007, when terabytes of information were downloaded/stolen from our major government agencies--"so we probably lost the equivalent of a Library of Congress worth of government information" that year and "we don't know who it is" who broke in.  

The point is that our computers and communications and all the critical infrastructure that they support--including our defense, energy, water, transportation, banking, and more are all vulnerable to potentially lengthy disruption.

What seems most difficult for people to grasp is that the bits of bytes of cyberspace are not just ephemeral things, but that thy have real impact to our physical universe.   

Jim Lewis says that "it doesn't seem to be sinking in. And some of us call it 'the death of a thousand cuts.' Every day a little bit more of our intellectual property, our innovative skills, our military technology is stolen by somebody. And it's like little drops.  Eventually we'll drown. But every day we don't notice."

Our computer systems are vulnerable and they control virtually all facets of lives, and if the enemy strikes at our cyber heart, it is going to hurt more than most of us realize.  

We are taking steps with cyber security, but we need to quickly shift from a reactive stance (watching and warning) to a proactive posture (of prevention and protection) and make cyber warfare a true national priority.

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