Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said last week that the U.S. is in “crisis mode,” comparing the danger of a massive cyberattack to a Category 5 hurricane looming on the horizon.
A well-executed cyberattack could knock out the electrical grid and shut off power to a huge swath of the country, or compromise vital government or financial data and leave us unsure what is real.
The Internet of Things, the sheer number of internet-connected devices, from cars to pacemakers, are adding to the vulnerability.
Gen. David Petraeus, former CIA director said, “What worries me most is a cyber equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction falling into the hands of extremists who would, needless to say, be very difficult to deter, given their willingness to blow themselves up on the battlefield to take us with them.”
Former CIA Director Leon Panetta says the biggest threat is “a cyberattack that could paralyze the nation,” while former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says “cyberattacks on critical infrastructure from state or state-sponsored actors are the biggest threat right now.”
Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are the top U.S. adversaries in the cyber realm, but the great threat extends to non-state actors and criminal groups.
Over the last year, Russian hackers have infiltrated power stations and other points on the U.S. grid — and now are inside hundreds, empowering them to create chaos with massive blackouts.
Is this the New Cold War?
- The U.S. and Moscow are each capable of taking down large parts of the other’s infrastructure.
- “Since 2015, the Russian government has been clear that it has wanted a nuclear-like deterrence in cyberspace,” says Christopher Porter, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and chief intelligence strategist at FireEye, a cybersecurity firm. “The U.S. has shown ‘shock and awe’ in cyberspace, and Russia wants to show it can keep pace with the U.S.”
- That’s why Russia has launched hundreds of incursions against the U.S. grid. There’s no one main switch that can cause a massive nationwide blackout because the system itself is so decentralized.
- Russia has pushed for a cyber arms control agreement. But arms control experts say it will be extremely hard to formulate one that is verifiable and enforceable.
- While Russia’s grid attacks have been restrained. In 2016, it attacked and took down a large part of Ukraine’s electric grid, but did not use that as cover to send in tanks or capture more territory. Moscow seems to be signaling its capabilities.
“Companies in the energy, financial, and other key economic sectors need to develop the capacity to share threat information in real time, and give the government the visibility and information to take action when necessary to defend us,” says Matt Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.