Last month, a private security firm announced that Chinese military hackers had launched attacks on the U.S. government and private companies nearly 147 times in the last seven years, a formal declaration of a secret cyber war that’s been going on for decades.
This war has not yet had a major impact on the lives of average American citizens: attacks have resulted in minor service disruptions only, such as not being able to log into online accounts.
But experts warn these kinds of service breaks are just a small symptom of the serious damage cyber terrorists and hackers can cause. Officials have said that hackers could cause a cyber 9/11 – an attack could cause widespread turmoil, including the disappearance of money, electrical failure, and even death. And America could be the battlefield in which these new techniques of war are tested.
“An adversary looking to cause chaos could pick any part of critical infrastructure, from banking to power to health care,” said Jeffrey Carr, chief executive officer of Taia Global, a cyber security firm. “All of those are vulnerable to cyber attack.”
The most harmful cyber attacks have the ability to impact nearly every part of American life, putting lives and essential privacy at risk. Without increased vigilance, experts say it’s only a matter of time before a worst-case scenario becomes a reality.
ATTACKS ON U.S. INFRASTRUCTURE
Hackers have attempted to infiltrate critical infrastructure components like mass transit and power grids, although few Americans are aware of it. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says they have had limited success. But all it takes it one breach to cause chaos.
“We know of specific instances where intruders have successfully gained access to these [critical infrastructure] systems," Panetta said last October in New York. "We also know that they are seeking to create advanced tools to attack these systems and cause panic and destruction and even the loss of life. ”
Attacks like the one Panetta described could turn off the power to large parts of the country. Public transportation systems could malfunction and operators to lose control of systems that prevent crashes. Attackers could also take down communication systems and Internet access.
According to Tom Kellermann, vice president of cyber security for Trend Micro, attacks on infrastructure could also provide false information to people making life and death decisions. For instance, hackers could target air traffic control systems, providing false information that could cause planes to crash.
“Everyone implicitly trusts his or her computer,” he said. “A cyber attack can corrupt this information.”
ATTACKS ON BANKING AND HEALTHCARE SYSTEMS
So far, cyber attacks have had limited access to bank accounts for short periods of time, and some personal information has been stolen. But according to Larry Ponemon, founder of the Ponemon Institute, a think tank that studies data privacy, hackers want to do more than disrupt: they want to make money disappear.
“In a successful attack against a bank, credentials and passwords are gone,” he said. “Hackers are trying to go into accounts to steal large sums of money.” Maybe, but imagine, for example, that cyber thieves were able to steal just 1 percent or less from JP Morgan’s $2 trillion in assets.
Health care systems are also vulnerable to these kinds of attacks. Many doctors and hospitals are now keeping electronic medical records. Hackers can get access to this information, making changes that could potentially lead to deadly instances where doctors prescribe unnecessary drugs or order irrelevant procedures for the patient.
“I have never seen an industry with more gaping security holes,” Avi Rubin, a computer scientist and technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University, told the Washington Post last year. “If our financial industry regarded security the way the health-care sector does, I would stuff my cash in a mattress under my bed."
ATTACKS ON INDIVIDUALS
According to Ponemon, hackers can target individuals without the person ever knowing it.
“An attack could be occurring if you computer is running weird and slow,” he said. “Often times, hackers will attack computers at time when the user is most likely sleeping.” When the system is shut down, of course, hackers can’t get in.
Once a system has been infiltrated, there’s no limit to what hackers can steal.
“Hackers have the ability to capture info from your devices. They can steal your password, your documents and your spreadsheets,” Ponemon said. “You can buy dozens of antivirus programs that usually stop most of the bad stuff out there. But there are always some malware programs that have no signature and can bypass security.”
Equally troubling is the hacker’s ability to conduct surveillance on a victim, Ponemon said.
“They turn on and off your camera,” Ponemon said, referring to the Web cameras that are standard in today’s computers. “They can hack into the voice part of your phone and wiretap a real conversation or use your phone to listen in on real-time conversations.”
Or as Taia Global’s Carr said, “I don’t think there is a limit on the imagination on how much harm could be done,” he said.