What if America could say for sure that the future would be free of the threat of planes flying into buildings, or even suspicious packages full of chemicals? It sounds like a relief. But the reality is that terrorists may no longer need these tactics to seriously cripple the American infrastructure. The Defense Information Security Agency tested the government’s ability to defend itself against online attacks and found that 88 percent of defense computer systems were defined as “easily penetrable.” And yet cyber-attacks can be even simpler than that. In May of 2013, a Syrian hacker group got into the Associated Press Twitter account and posted that President Obama had been injured in two explosions at the White House. The stock market fell 143 points in two minutes. What other serious dangers does cyber terrorism present?
Hacking is Widespread
It’s fairly safe to say that the average person doesn’t understand how much money and how many valuable secrets could be lost to cyber terrorism every year. Major corporations lose upwards of $1 billion annually to computer break-ins, and CIA and Homeland Security sites are illegally accessed tens of thousands of times. In 2013, news that Chinese hackers were monitoring the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal became part of the motivation for President Obama to expand his cyber security task force by over 4,000 people. Very few of these hackers – less than 10 percent – are hired hands. The vast majority are amateur groups or individuals with little money or resources who conduct so-called “nuisance” attacks on banks and government agencies daily.
How Bad Could it Get?
Nuisance attacks and even a temporary dip in the stock market may not sound like a major threat to homeland security, but there is much more these attackers could do to the United States if they had the resources and time to prepare. Think of how much of this country’s infrastructure is reliant on computers. Many experts worry that a major attack could come in the form of knocking out the power grid, causing a loss of electricity in perhaps the entire east or west coast, billions of dollars in losses, and a humanitarian crisis. Imagine the loss of America’s water supply or a hijacking of air traffic control – even a blackout of the entire internet. Most researchers say this has not yet happened because hackers lack the money and skills to even attempt such an attack, but with cybercrime growing exponentially, how long until someone enables them?
Steps Toward Prevention
Hackers may be expanding their skills, but businesses and governments around the world are focused on developing software and training materials to help stop cyber-attacks before they happen. They can now run hundreds of different simulated attacks to test their defenses and improve detection methods. Security software analytics programs at major corporations can find anomalies in website access and use. But FBI and Homeland Security staffers claim the most effective tool against cyberterrorism is increased awareness of where the biggest threats lie and how to protect them at the most basic level. The governments of India, China, Britain, Australia, and France have all suffered cyber-attacks that have caused them to increase legislation and hire new staff in the past few years.
There has been some debate about whether the media is exaggerating the threat of cyber terrorism, but with the sheer number of attacks that happen every day, it’s not hard to imagine they will become even more sophisticated. Cybercrime impacts the economy with a loss of up to $500 billion every year. Are computers the battle ground for the next Pearl Harbor? That threat may be much closer than you think.
Brett Harris, a forensics specialist, blogs about various cybercrimes and terrorism that is a real threat to our nation’s security. If this area of law enforcement sounds interesting research the 10 Best Online Homeland Security Degree Programs to get you started.