As technology advances, the United States becomes more and more vulnerable to cyber attacks. An example of this occurred today as 74 countries fell victim to a cyber attack in the form of Ransomware named “WannaCry.” While WannaCry is tied to data security, there are other forms of attacks that could literally cripple the United States. One such example could be a cyber attack that takes down the entire power grid for the country.
President Trump, on Thursday, made the first step in front line defenses to make sure this does not happen. In an, Trump called together the top leadership of the Energy Department, Homeland Security, DNI, and state and local governments to assess how ready they are to react to a large-scale shutdown of the power grid. This work will include looking at how this type of attack may happen, and how each part of the system can prepare to respond.
Two days before this executive order, the commander of the Cyber Command Mike Rogers testified to the risk before Congress. According to:
“We assess that several countries, including Iran, have conducted disruptions or remote intrusions into critical infrastructure systems in the United States.”
As Rogers spoke before Congress, he expressed concerns about several key parts of the power grid. This included “…cyber attacks on critical infrastructures used to run the electric grid, financial systems, communications networks, the transportation systems, and others.”
While there has not been a widespread disruption of the power grid to date, hacking by international groups to hurt the American public is not something new. Iranian hackers, as recent as last year, were tied to cyber attacks that tore into the American financial system.
Attacks on power grids of foreign countries are also not something unheard of. The BlackEnergy malware with ties to Russia was used to disrupt the Ukrainian power grid via a cyber attack. According to Rogers:
“Infiltrations in U.S. critical infrastructure—when viewed in the light of incidents like these—can look like preparations for future attacks that could be intended to harm Americans, or at least to deter the United States and other countries from protecting and defending our vital interests.”
An attack and interruption on any part of the U.S. power grid could be dangerous. Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert shared the following:
“The Russians are not our only adversary on the Internet, the Russians are not the only people that operate in a negative way on the Internet. The Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, other nation-states are motivated to use cyber capacity and cyber tools to attack our people and our government and their data. And that’s something we can no longer abide.”
James Clapper, former DNI, echoed these concerns in a Senate hearing this week. He also worries about foreign cyber attacks on U.S. infrastructure, and shared the following statement:
“I worry about the worst case which is an attack on our infrastructure. And I think the Russians have, particularly, have reconnoitered it, and probably at a time of their choosing, which I don’t think right now is likely, but I think, if they want it to, could do great harm.”
As many will focus on a huge power outage in the United States, there are also smaller sites that are far more vulnerable and dangerous. One such area is the Pacific Island of Guam. While it is not a part of the mainland and does not have a very large overall population, an interruption of the power grid there could effect major military operations. This is a hub for the United States and needs to be protected.
In recent years, advances in technology have led to changes in the way many countries interact during times of conflict. As Rogers explained:
“The pace of international conflict and cyberspace threats has intensified over the past few years. We face a growing variety of advanced threats from actors who are operating with ever more sophistication and precision.”
Conflict worldwide is not a new concept either. Living within the United States many might feel a false sense of security. We are not seeing people dying in the streets or a military force that is visible. Rogers reminded members of Congress:
“Cyber war is not some future concept or cinematic spectacle, it is real and here to stay. The fact that it is not killing people yet, or causing widespread destruction, should be no comfort to us as we survey the threat landscape. Conflict in the cyber domain is not simply a continuation of kinetic operations by digital means, nor is it some science fiction clash of robot armies. It is unfolding according to its own logic, which we are continuing to better understand.”
It is important to understand that a cyber attack is not something that simply ends in a broken computer or an inconvenience. It can lead to death and destruction just as a military attack can. The current design of the emerging Cyber Command will deploy a total of 133 cyber mission teams working to keep this from happening. This small army will include 6,200 military and civilian workers.
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