This is how the U.S. Secretary of Defense yesterday described America’s vulnerability to a devastating cyber attack:
What Panetta failed to mention in the scenario he laid out was that the cyberweapons necessary for conducting such an attack have already been created by the U.S. government and are now freely available for anyone to duplicate.
The New York Times reports: Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned Thursday that the United States was facing the possibility of a “cyber-Pearl Harbor” and was increasingly vulnerable to foreign computer hackers who could dismantle the nation’s power grid, transportation system, financial networks and government.
In a speech at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, Mr. Panetta painted a dire picture of how such an attack on the United States might unfold. He said he was reacting to increasing aggressiveness and technological advances by the nation’s adversaries, which officials identified as China, Russia, Iran and militant groups.
“An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches,” Mr. Panetta said. “They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”
Defense officials insisted that Mr. Panetta’s words were not hyperbole, and that he was responding to a recent wave of cyberattacks on large American financial institutions. He also cited an attack in August on the state oil company Saudi Aramco, which infected and made useless more than 30,000 computers.
But Pentagon officials acknowledged that Mr. Panetta was also pushing for legislation on Capitol Hill. It would require new standards at critical private-sector infrastructure facilities — like power plants, water treatment facilities and gas pipelines — where a computer breach could cause significant casualties or economic damage.
In August, a cybersecurity bill that had been one of the administration’s national security priorities was blocked by a group of Republicans, led by Senator John McCain of Arizona, who took the side of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and said it would be too burdensome for corporations.
The most destructive possibilities, Mr. Panetta said, involve “cyber-actors launching several attacks on our critical infrastructure at one time, in combination with a physical attack.” He described the collective result as a “cyber-Pearl Harbor that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life, an attack that would paralyze and shock the nation and create a profound new sense of vulnerability.” [Continue reading…]
I have little doubt that in a second Obama term, cyber-defense will be used as a justification for an unprecedented erosion of civil liberties. There will be no acknowledgement that it was during this administration more than any other, Pandora’s box of cyberwarfare was thrown wide open.
While Panetta portrays this country’s vulnerability in terms similar to a conventional military or terrorist attack, it seems just as likely that a major cyber attack might be launched by disaffected members of America’s own cyber culture — libertarians who have no particular interest in harming the lives of ordinary Americans yet who believe in what they conceive as a righteous cause: crippling the U.S. government.
As computer security expert Ralph Langner notes: “In cyberspace, the real threat comes from nonstate actors against which military deterrence is powerless. It does not require the resources of a nation state to develop cyber weapons. I could achieve that by myself with just a handful of freelance experts.”
So, while government officials like Panetta couch cyber-defense in the traditional terms relating to foreign enemies, they are no doubt also looking for measures to protect their own interests from threats posed by domestic enemies. This is how civil liberties will come under attack. Don’t expect Congress or the media to mount a strong defense.