Is a cyber-Pearl Harbor likely?

A surprise cyber attack on U.S critical infrastructure – an imminent scenario?

Cybersecurity experts often contemplate how U.S. security agencies would react to a cyber-9/11 or a ‘digital Pearl Harbor’. In the framework of such a computer-based attack, the hackers would unplug the US power grid, disable communications lines, empty bank accounts, and cause loss of life.

Summer Fowler is a deputy technical director for cybersecurity solutions at CERT, the U.S. first Computer Emergency Response Team, based at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute. Fowler works with Pentagon officials, cyber intelligence officers and the private sector. His task is to identify key cyber assets, secure them from cyberattacks, and coordinate a response in case hackers infiltrate secured systems. “Ultimately, it absolutely could happen,” Fowler told HomeLand Security News Wire. “Yeah, that thought keeps me up at night, in terms of what portion of our critical infrastructure could be really brought to its knees.”

The Tribune Review reports that the United States, along with most industrialized countries, work diligently to build, arm, and aim cyberattacks that can be initiated at the first provocation of war.

Until now, military forces and intelligence agencies conduct cyber espionage, often to send a message or disrupt an adversary’s capabilities.

There are quite a few examples of such cases in recent years:

  • According to a report in HomeLand Security News Wire, the United States and Israel launched the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s uranium-enrichment facilities back in 2010.
  • The FBI discovered hackers tied to the Iranian government breaking into the systems of American defense contractors, universities, and energy companies.
  • The DHS has found Russian hackers placing destructive software into American power grid, telecommunications, and oil distribution systems.
  • Security analysts at FireEye report that in the early stages of Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, malware was detected erupting from both countries.

Analysts have not specified the precise intent of the potential cyberattacks, but they do suggest that “computer network operations are being used as one way to gain competitive advantage in the conflict.”

“Before countries consider going to war, they must lay the groundwork for cyberattacks,” Kenneth Geers told HomeLand Security News Wire. Geers, a former U.S. representative to NATO’s cooperative cyber defense center in Estonia, is a cybersecurity expert. He was the one who conducted the FireEye research.

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