With our increasing dependence on the internet to transmit everything from emails and electronic payment information to air traffic control and transportation logistics, a properly targeted cyber attack could wreck havoc in the United States within minutes, says Richard Clark:
In his warning, Mr Clarke paints a doomsday scenario in which the problems start with the collapse of one of Pentagon’s computer networks.
Soon internet service providers are in meltdown. Reports come in of large refinery fires and explosions in Philadelphia and Houston. Chemical plants malfunction, releasing lethal clouds of chlorine.
Air traffic controllers report several mid-air collisions, while subway trains crash in New York, Washington and Los Angeles. More than 150 cities are suddenly blacked out. Tens of thousands of Americans die in an attack comparable to a nuclear bomb in its devastation.
Yet it would take no more than 15 minutes and involve not a single terrorist or soldier setting foot in the United States.
An enemy of the United States, whether foreign or domestic, wouldn’t need a nuclear bomb. They would simply need to take down the main computer networks. Many internet operations are centralized, especially in the private sector, so taking down something like the national DNS (Domain Name System) databases would put a stop to pretty much any communications used by the general public. An attack on Defense Department networks would be even more serious, potentially leading to a cascading effect across the entire nation.
Utilities, like water systems and electricity, are highly vulnerable, as they are built on very old technologies and are very dependent on each other due to old-style distribution systems. As an example, consider the massive black out that covered the entire north east for several days in 2003 while emergency crews worked to resolve the problems. Roughly one fifth of our country was out of power not because local power stations were taken down, but, according to the official story, because one or two main plants experienced outages due to natural causes (trees on power lines). There is still no definitive confirmation on what happened here, and for all we know this could have been a cyber attack testing our networks.
It’s no secret that hackers in countries like Russia, and especially China, have spent the last decade infiltrating and testing the stability and security of US networks – including the Pentagon and our satellite systems. At the first sign of potential international conflict, the initial wave of attacks will likely occur on the digital battlefield, resulting in downed communication systems, utilities, cable systems, GPS, cell phone networks, hardline networks and transaction processing systems.
Another issue, not related directly to defense computer networks, is that the plans for US water utility, electrical utility, and internet networks are readily available on the internet for anyone to download and analyze for vulnerabilities. We’ve essentially given any potential enemies a road map for how to bring down the United States without even firing a shot.