One of the most alarming stories of the day says the United States has declared war again. Only this time, drones won’t target enemy operatives and no one will hear their leaders condemn America and its policies or even see anyone burn our flag in protest. Instead, the war is being waged in cyber space—and you may be a target.
Businesses certainly have been in the crosshairs already. U.S. banks have been the targets of malicious cyber attacks that can slow or impede access for customers—it’s called distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. They can hit at any time and impact any digital entity. Last September, two major American banks—U.S. Bancorp and PNC Financial Services—experienced serious outages that resulted from nefarious interference with customer access. Then, on January 3, PNC issued a new warning to customers explaining that a cyber attack was likely as they were grappling with heavy Internet traffic. The warning came a week after Citigroup experienced similar problems.
Banks are just one among many targets of cyber terrorists. Last July, The New York Times reported there had been “a 17-fold increase in computer attacks on American infrastructure between 2009 and 2011, initiated by criminal gangs, hackers and other nations.” We’re talking about attacks on our water supply, electricity grids, computer and cellphone networks—any service or database that relies on digital delivery of information. Last October, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that the U.S. could face a “cyber Pearl Harbor.”
It’s why we’re now we’re heading into “Die Hard” territory, where Bruce Willis tries to protect Justin Long (the last surviving hacker who can de-program the evil algorithm of the cyber attackers) from annihilation. In that movie, the bad guys hack into the television networks and take over all cable news programming (OK, not much of a loss except for Morning Joe and CNBC); reprogram all traffic lights in Washington, D.C. so that they’re green all the time (the pile-ups are impressive); crash the stock market; and infiltrate an East Coast power grid, ultimately blowing it up.
The movie’s technical advisor could have been General Keith B. Alexander, head of the National Security Agency and the United States Cyber Command. According to The Times, Alexander dismissed the idea that the increased attacks were related to a computer worm known as Stuxnet, which targeted Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. But he did call for legislation to give the government new powers to defend computer networks against hackers and terrorists.
Today, some of Alexander’s wishes have been met. The Washington Post reported on Sunday that the Pentagon approved a five-fold expansion of its cybersecurity force over the next several years – from 900 to 4,900 troops and civilians.
How will this army be recruited? If they hire hackers, who have the knowledge and speed to break into systems, are they risking more than they might get in protective services? Will corporate secrets be exposed either by design or default as the NSA team digs in to save business or financial data from a malicious attack?
Whatever the result, you can bet that cyber warfare will mark the first part of this century and unleash a virulent global paranoia. It may even impel dramatic new cinematic thrillers that can be downloaded on any device with access to the Internet. Just keep your fingers crossed that these movies are not based on “actual events.”