Entries Tagged "cyberterrorism"

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The Ubiquity of Cyber-Fears

A new study concludes that more people are worried about cyber threats than terrorism.

…the three highest priorities for Americans when it comes to security issues in the presidential campaign are:

  1. Protecting government computer systems against hackers and criminals (74 percent)
  2. Protecting our electric power grid, water utilities and transportation systems against computer or terrorist attacks (73 percent)
  3. Homeland security issues such as terrorism (68 percent)

Posted on May 24, 2012 at 11:31 AMView Comments

Hacking Critical Infrastructure

A otherwise uninteresting article on Internet threats to public infrastructure contains this paragraph:

At a closed-door briefing, the senators were shown how a power company employee could derail the New York City electrical grid by clicking on an e-mail attachment sent by a hacker, and how an attack during a heat wave could have a cascading impact that would lead to deaths and cost the nation billions of dollars.

Why isn’t the obvious solution to this to take those critical electrical grid computers off the public Internet?

Posted on March 20, 2012 at 8:52 AMView Comments

The Problem with Using the Cold War Metaphor to Describe Cyberspace Risks

Nice essay on the problems with talking about cyberspace risks using “Cold War” metaphors:

The problem with threat inflation and misapplied history is that there are extremely serious risks, but also manageable responses, from which they steer us away. Massive, simultaneous, all-encompassing cyberattacks on the power grid, the banking system, transportation networks, etc. along the lines of a Cold War first strike or what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called the “next Pearl Harbor” (another overused and ill-suited analogy) would certainly have major consequences, but they also remain completely theoretical, and the nation would recover. In the meantime, a real national security danger is being ignored: the combination of online crime and espionage that’s gradually undermining our finances, our know-how and our entrepreneurial edge. While would-be cyber Cold Warriors stare at the sky and wait for it to fall, they’re getting their wallets stolen and their offices robbed.


If the most apt parallel is not the Cold War, then what are some alternatives we could turn to for guidance, especially when it comes to the problem of building up international cooperation in this space? Cybersecurity’s parallels, and some of its solutions, lie more in the 1840s and ’50s than they do in the 1940s and ’50s.

Much like the Internet is becoming today, in centuries past the sea was a primary domain of commerce and communication upon which no one single actor could claim complete control. What is notable is that the actors that related to maritime security and war at sea back then parallel many of the situations on our networks today. They scaled from individual pirates to state fleets with a global presence like the British Navy. In between were state-sanctioned pirates, or privateers. Much like today’s “patriotic hackers” (or NSA contractors), these forces were used both to augment traditional military forces and to add challenges of attribution to those trying to defend far-flung maritime assets. In the Golden Age of privateering, an attacker could quickly shift identity and locale, often taking advantage of third-party harbors with loose local laws. The actions that attacker might take ranged from trade blockades (akin to a denial of service) to theft and hijacking to actual assaults on military assets or underlying economic infrastructure to great effect.

Ross Anderson is the first person I heard comparing today’s cybercrime threats to global piracy in the 19th century.

Posted on August 26, 2011 at 1:58 PMView Comments

The Cyberwar Arms Race

Good paper: “Loving the Cyber Bomb? The Dangers of Threat Inflation in Cybersecurity Policy,” by Jerry Brito and Tate Watkins.

Over the past two years there has been a steady drumbeat of alarmist rhetoric coming out of Washington about potential catastrophic cyber threats. For example, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last year, Chairman Carl Levin said that “cyberweapons and cyberattacks potentially can be devastating, approaching weapons of mass destruction in their effects.” Proposed responses include increased federal spending on cybersecurity and the regulation of private network security practices.

The rhetoric of “cyber doom” employed by proponents of increased federal intervention, however, lacks clear evidence of a serious threat that can be verified by the public. As a result, the United States may be witnessing a bout of threat inflation similar to that seen in the run-up to the Iraq War. Additionally, a cyber-industrial complex is emerging, much like the military-industrial complex of the Cold War. This complex may serve to not only supply cybersecurity solutions to the federal government, but to drum up demand for them as well.

Part I of this article draws a parallel between today’s cybersecurity debate and the run-up to the Iraq War and looks at how an inflated public conception of the threat we face may lead to unnecessary regulation of the Internet. Part II draws a parallel between the emerging cybersecurity establishment and the military-industrial complex of the Cold War and looks at how unwarranted external influence can lead to unnecessary federal spending. Finally, Part III surveys several federal cybersecurity proposals and presents a framework for analyzing the cybersecurity threat.

Also worth reading is an earlier paper by Sean Lawson: “Beyond Cyber Doom.”

EDITED TO ADD (5/3): Good article on the paper.

Posted on April 28, 2011 at 6:56 AMView Comments

Israel's Counter-Cyberterrorism Unit

You’d think the country would already have one of these:

Israel is mulling the creation of a counter-cyberterrorism unit designed to safeguard both government agencies and core private sector firms against hacking attacks.

The proposed unit would supplement the efforts of Mossad and other agencies in fighting cyberespionage and denial of service attacks.

Posted on April 12, 2011 at 2:06 PMView Comments

Security Vulnerabilities of Smart Electricity Meters

Who controls the off switch?” by Ross Anderson and Shailendra Fuloria.

Abstract: We’re about to acquire a significant new cybervulnerability. The world’s energy utilities are starting to install hundreds of millions of ‘smart meters’ which contain a remote off switch. Its main purpose is to ensure that customers who default on their payments can be switched remotely to a prepay tariff; secondary purposes include supporting interruptible tariffs and implementing rolling power cuts at times of supply shortage.

The off switch creates information security problems of a kind, and on a scale, that the energy companies have not had to face before. From the viewpoint of a cyber attacker—whether a hostile government agency, a terrorist organisation or even a militant environmental group—the ideal attack on a target country is to interrupt its citizens’ electricity supply. This is the cyber equivalent of a nuclear strike; when electricity stops, then pretty soon everything else does too. Until now, the only plausible ways to do that involved attacks on critical generation, transmission and distribution assets, which are increasingly well defended.

Smart meters change the game. The combination of commands that will cause meters to interrupt the supply, of applets and software upgrades that run in the meters, and of cryptographic keys that are used to authenticate these commands and software changes, create a new strategic vulnerability, which we discuss in this paper.

The two have another paper on the economics of smart meters. Blog post here.

Posted on July 29, 2010 at 6:16 AMView Comments

Internet Kill Switch

Last month, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., introduced a bill (text here) that might—we’re not really sure—give the president the authority to shut down all or portions of the Internet in the event of an emergency. It’s not a new idea. Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, proposed the same thing last year, and some argue that the president can already do something like this. If this or a similar bill ever passes, the details will change considerably and repeatedly. So let’s talk about the idea of an Internet kill switch in general.

It’s a bad one.

Security is always a trade-off: costs versus benefits. So the first question to ask is: What are the benefits? There is only one possible use of this sort of capability, and that is in the face of a warfare-caliber enemy attack. It’s the primary reason lawmakers are considering giving the president a kill switch. They know that shutting off the Internet, or even isolating the U.S. from the rest of the world, would cause damage, but they envision a scenario where not doing so would cause even more.

That reasoning is based on several flawed assumptions.

The first flawed assumption is that cyberspace has traditional borders, and we could somehow isolate ourselves from the rest of the world using an electronic Maginot Line. We can’t.

Yes, we can cut off almost all international connectivity, but there are lots of ways to get out onto the Internet: satellite phones, obscure ISPs in Canada and Mexico, long-distance phone calls to Asia.

The Internet is the largest communications system mankind has ever created, and it works because it is distributed. There is no central authority. No nation is in charge. Plugging all the holes isn’t possible.

Even if the president ordered all U.S. Internet companies to block, say, all packets coming from China, or restrict non-military communications, or just shut down access in the greater New York area, it wouldn’t work. You can’t figure out what packets do just by looking at them; if you could, defending against worms and viruses would be much easier.

And packets that come with return addresses are easy to spoof. Remember the cyberattack July 4, 2009, that probably came from North Korea, but might have come from England, or maybe Florida? On the Internet, disguising traffic is easy. And foreign cyberattackers could always have dial-up accounts via U.S. phone numbers and make long-distance calls to do their misdeeds.

The second flawed assumption is that we can predict the effects of such a shutdown. The Internet is the most complex machine mankind has ever built, and shutting down portions of it would have all sorts of unforeseen ancillary effects.

Would ATMs work? What about the stock exchanges? Which emergency services would fail? Would trucks and trains be able to route their cargo? Would airlines be able to route their passengers? How much of the military’s logistical system would fail?

That’s to say nothing of the variety of corporations that rely on the Internet to function, let alone the millions of Americans who would need to use it to communicate with their loved ones in a time of crisis.

Even worse, these effects would spill over internationally. The Internet is international in complex and surprising ways, and it would be impossible to ensure that the effects of a shutdown stayed domestic and didn’t cause similar disasters in countries we’re friendly with.

The third flawed assumption is that we could build this capability securely. We can’t.

Once we engineered a selective shutdown switch into the Internet, and implemented a way to do what Internet engineers have spent decades making sure never happens, we would have created an enormous security vulnerability. We would make the job of any would-be terrorist intent on bringing down the Internet much easier.

Computer and network security is hard, and every Internet system we’ve ever created has security vulnerabilities. It would be folly to think this one wouldn’t as well. And given how unlikely the risk is, any actual shutdown would be far more likely to be a result of an unfortunate error or a malicious hacker than of a presidential order.

But the main problem with an Internet kill switch is that it’s too coarse a hammer.

Yes, the bad guys use the Internet to communicate, and they can use it to attack us. But the good guys use it, too, and the good guys far outnumber the bad guys.

Shutting the Internet down, either the whole thing or just a part of it, even in the face of a foreign military attack would do far more damage than it could possibly prevent. And it would hurt others whom we don’t want to hurt.

For years we’ve been bombarded with scare stories about terrorists wanting to shut the Internet down. They’re mostly fairy tales, but they’re scary precisely because the Internet is so critical to so many things.

Why would we want to terrorize our own population by doing exactly what we don’t want anyone else to do? And a national emergency is precisely the worst time to do it.

Just implementing the capability would be very expensive; I would rather see that money going toward securing our nation’s critical infrastructure from attack.

Defending his proposal, Sen. Lieberman pointed out that China has this capability. It’s debatable whether or not it actually does, but it’s actively pursuing the capability because the country cares less about its citizens.

Here in the U.S., it is both wrong and dangerous to give the president the power and ability to commit Internet suicide and terrorize Americans in this way.

This essay was originally published on AOL.com News.

Posted on July 12, 2010 at 7:07 AMView Comments

Nuclear Self-Terrorization

More fearmongering. The headline is “Terrorists could use internet to launch nuclear attack: report.” The subhead: “The risk of cyber-terrorism escalating to a nuclear strike is growing daily, according to a study.” In the article:

The claims come in a study commissioned by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), which suggests that under the right circumstances, terrorists could break into computer systems and launch an attack on a nuclear state ­ triggering a catastrophic chain of events that would have a global impact.

Without better protection of computer and information systems, the paper suggests, governments around the world are leaving open the possibility that a well-coordinated cyberwar could quickly elevate to nuclear levels.

In fact, says the study, “this may be an easier alternative for terrorist groups than building or acquiring a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb themselves”.

Though the paper admits that the media and entertainment industries often confuse and exaggerate the risk of cyberterrorism, it also outlines a number of potential threats and situations in which dedicated hackers could use information warfare techniques to make a nuclear attack more likely.

Note the weasel words: the study “suggests that under the right circumstances.” We’re “leaving open the possibility.” The report “outlines a number of potential threats and situations” where the bad guys could “make a nuclear attack more likely.”

Gadzooks. I’m tired of this idiocy. Stop overreacting to rare risks. Refuse to be terrorized, people.

Posted on July 31, 2009 at 6:00 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.