December 20, 2017

Combating a Super-Warrior

Vikings, Spartans, Mongols, Nazis- stories of their abilities to devastate have filled listeners with an eerie sense of awe for generations. Soon, a new name may appear on this list as civilization’s transition to digital gives ominous rise to a new breed of super-warrior — the hacker. Gone are the days of traveling miles to wage war, or dangerously infiltrating enemy camps for a little espionage. A skilled hacker can bring nation-wide devastation straight from his cubicle. This realization has world leaders flexing their simulated muscles at the United States.


Many nations have tested the limits of US cyber defense: North Korea hacked into Sony Enterprise to halt a movie premier, Brazil gained access to NASA’s website, and ongoing efforts have been made by China to steal military and trade secrets. However, none have presented as brazen a threat as Russia.


In 2016, in what may be considered the most publicized and controversial cyberattack of all time, a Russian military-intelligence hacking group duped a democratic campaign chairman into unwittingly opening access to a trove of e-mails sent and received by members of the Democratic National Committee. The breach proved to be enormous — more than 19,000 DNC e-mails were leaked to the public, exposing a multitude of confidential correspondences thus sparking political turmoil. Although this success was damaging, it paled in comparison to what the Russians aimed for. During the 2016 election cycle, failed attempts were made to hack the Republican National Committee as well as officials from 21 states.


Furthering American woes is the string of Russian cyberattacks on Ukrainian power grids, which have demonstrated the Soviets’ ability to paralyze a nation with just a keystroke. Terrifyingly, some believe the Ukraine is just a test-dummy for the real target – the United States. "The really disturbing thing is that they're also using Ukraine as a testing ground for attacks that they're honing to possibly use against Western Europe or the United States in the future…It's probably harder to take down our US grid, but it might be easier to keep it down for a longer period of time,” warns Wired reporter Andy Greenberg.


Consider the implications of a coordinated, wide-spread attack on United States power grids and cell phone towers. Smart phones would go dumb, trains would stop, computers would crash, GPS would fail, bank records would be lost. American citizens would be sent to the dark ages – broke, lost and disconnected. This type of coordinated hit may be nearer than we think.


A report published in 2016 noted that “the Federal government as a whole suffered 7,466 successful malicious code attacks in the past year alone” . According to Ted Koppel, author of Lights out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, the Department of Homeland Security is the only agency which would be able to stop such cyberattacks, and even they are unprepared. "I've talked to every former Secretary of Homeland Security, and they all acknowledge there is no plan”, said Koppel. 


Luckily, politicians have begun to question the government’s readiness (or lack thereof), and there have been wide-spread demands for proactive measures, like stricter legislation, consolidated data centers, an updated national cyber defense and educational incentives for young people. “For years our enemies have been setting the norms in cyberspace while the White House sat idly by hoping the problem would fix itself," said Sen. John McCain (R-Arz.), “That kind of indecisiveness is antithetical to deterrence, and our nation simply cannot afford it.” 


Recent cyberwarfare should serve as a call to action not only for the Presidential Administration, but for average citizens and industry, as well. In 1955, President Eisenhower’s State of the Union Address summarized the need for, "a modern, efficient highway system…to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy, and our national security." This same idea should apply to the infrastructure of the current age — the internet. We must work to make it more secure and resilient.  With a trained workforce, updated systems, clearly defined tactics and a diligent and informed public, we may be able to stand a chance in the war against hackers.