The forces of the perfect storm of climate change, energy tsunamis and global economic bubbles in collision are complex and varied; each with their own levels of threat and urgency. In this milieu, it’s easy to over-fixate on the more visible threats and downplay the others.
Case in point: The Iranian nuclear showdown has dominated the news and polarized the geopolitical world. While frightening, it has overshadowed another “real-time” threat of growing proportions: cyber-warfare and cyber-security.
It’s not a new threat. Our personal computers are barraged with viral assaults. The cyber firewalls of such giants as J.P. Morgan, Target, Home Depot, SONY and Anthem Health are regularly penetrated – with the loss of sensitive information on tens of millions of Americans at a crack.
It’s bad enough when hackers and criminals do their dirty deeds; it’s downright dangerous when nation states organize and deploy their cyber-forces against other nations in a harmful manner.
Cyber-warfare has escalated into a new global battlefield with ill-defined “rules of the road.” The barriers to entry are low, and serious cyber-attacks can now be conducted by tiny nations and terrorist groups against any nation or company. It’s a perfect example of using asymmetric warfare to attack a far greater force using unconventional means. Though cyber forensics are improving, identifying the source of an attack is almost as difficult as deciding on a response.
James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, recently reported to congress that “Cyber threats to U.S. national and economic security are increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication, and severity of impact.” He went on to identify Russia as one of the most sophisticated cyber adversaries and that cyber threats, in general, would be more of an “ongoing series of low-to-moderate level of cyberattacks from a variety of sources over time…” One can only imagine what he might say about this in a classified briefing.
Cyber-attacks have taken on many forms such as: 1) denial-of-services, 2) data and supply-chain disruptions, 3) cyber-espionage and 4) increased cyber-penetrations of sensitive and seemingly secure areas such as the Department of Defense and other agencies.
Future threat levels could escalate into something far worse: A cyber-kinetic attack that triggers a cyber-system to do something counter to its intent such as shutting down or destroying an electrical grid, disrupting air traffic control or degrading financial or sensitive national defense systems is a clear and present danger.
The use of the “Stuxnet” worm to invade and degrade Iranian centrifuge machines is a good example of a “kinetic” threat. A cyber-blitzkrieg that attacked multiple cyber-systems at the same time could be devastating and more likely to occur than a nuclear attack.
The United States set up the U.S. Cyber Command in 2009 to coordinate key cyber activities – defensive and offensive. In 2011, the White House reserved the right to deem a cyber-attack an “act of war.” More recently, Admiral Michael S. Rogers, Director of the U.S. Cyber Command said, “There should be [no] doubt in anybody’s mind that the cyber challenges we’re talking about are not theoretical. This is something real that is impacting our nation and those of our allies and friends every day.”
The perfect storm is being shaped by a broad base of economic, energy, environmental, behavioral and geopolitical forces on a collision course. Cyber-warfare changes the geopolitical equation by providing smaller forces with an asymmetric capacity to ”level” the playing field.
The digital technology that created such intoxicating results could become the Trojan horse trying to destroy them. As the frequency and severity of cyber-attacks ramp up, policy debates over privacy and access to information will intensify and clash head-on with issues of national security. Welcome to the perfect storm!
Read more from R. Michael Conley at www.weatheringthestorm.net.
— R. Michael Conley, Transition Voice