America’s Unprotected Back Door: the New Terrorist Threat
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April 13, 2009
By Jeff Dickson
The Daily, University of Washington
It’s late December in the United States, and the bitter heart of winter for most regions. Snow is piled several feet high in cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Suddenly, without warning, the power grid for the entire East Coast shuts down. As the hours go by, the cold slowly begins to penetrate. As the hours turn into days, thousands of people begin to succumb to the freezing temperatures.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, something has gone horribly awry in a water-treatment facility. Several hundred thousand gallons of sewage has contaminated the freshwater system irreparably. Days, maybe even weeks, go by with millions unable to access fresh water, making Katrina look like a high-budget reality TV show.
These horrific scenarios are not the theoretical effects of the mythical “CIP-device” from the show 24. They are the very real potential damages we could incur from a very different form of terrorism that is not receiving appropriate attention.
Cyber-terrorism has largely been a term used by Hollywood and sci-fi junkies to describe theoretical scenarios that make for blockbuster action movies. Ideas such as a “fire sale,” the concept of crippling the infrastructure of the nation using nothing but a keyboard and wiz-kid hacker, has historically been nothing more than an excuse for Bruce Willis to jump out of F-22’s and yell “yippee-kai-aye!”
Last week, an article in The Wall Street Journal revealed that spies, believed to be Russian and Chinese, have hacked into many U.S. infrastructure systems. Everything from the power grid to water-treatment facilities showed signs of penetration. Once they have entered the system, the hackers gain control over all the electronic aspects of the compound, as if they were a secret administrator. Considering nearly every aspect of these companies is now electronically operated, hackers can control virtually everything while remaining largely undetected.
Even more disturbing was the discovery of what the spies had implanted in the system: hidden software that could destroy critical components if the command was given. If these attacks were indeed from international powers, these “e-bombs” if you will, could be used to hold our nation hostage. The threat of implementing the destructive devices could be used as blackmail to get the United States to perform certain unfavorable international actions, or be used to severely hinder our basic functions if we were ever at war with China or Russia.
This is the future of terrorism. The new threat does not come in the primitive form of raw physical destruction, but rather like a sly virus with the sophisticated finesse to erode from the inside out.
We have been so concerned with guarding our front door against suicide bombers and Islamic fundamentalist groups that operate out of caves and still traverse on camels, but we have left our back door wide open to high-tech terrorists.
Like any shift in tactics, the concept of cyber invasion is not a new one. For years, private citizens have endured the irritants of cyber crime. But the use of this method to attack the government is just now starting to gain popularity among the community of the most destructive minds. In 2006, only a few thousand of the 20,000 cyber attacks reported were against government-related entities. But in 2008, just two years later, more than 20,000 of the nearly 65,000 cyber breaches were against the U.S. government.
This is a very real threat. The number-one priority of the federal government has been, and always will be, to ensure the safety of its citizens. Instead of wasting billions to bail out companies that have failed the game of capitalism, funds should be more heavily diverted to safeguard against these extraordinary infiltrations that threaten the security of our most basic needs.
If we cannot rely on our safety and security, everything else will become trivial.