Photo: Uriel Sinai / Getty
Many called the world wide web a ‘democratizing force’ when it hit mainstream use in the late 80s and 90s, but it could be just the force to bring the US to its knees in the coming years.Many prominent experts and diplomats, including just days ago defence Secretary Leon Panetta, have whistled warnings on the danger of cyber attacks to American infrastructure.
Recently, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology publication Technology Review detailed how ageing ‘un-patched’ American systems are particularly vulnerable to attacks.
Tom Simonite, staff writer at MIT Tech Review, said the reasons for the vulnerabilities were simple: whereas consumers of personal computing installed constant updates to protect against identity theft, public works systems developed a tendency to favour ‘reliability’ over cutting edge software tech.
The adherence to “whatever [software] keeps the lights on” puts these companies, and American infrastructure, at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to dealing with hackers — Simonite basically says some of these software systems haven’t been updated since their initiation.
Furthermore, these companies’ networks are not sheltered from the web for one simple reason: satellite staff.
“It could be a power engineer who wants to manage a substation without driving through the snow,” Roy Campbell, critical-infrastructure systems researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Simonite. So systems that might otherwise run without access to the web have been exposed in order to facilitate hires that may work outside a commutable radius.
Campbell broke it down even further, describing how the nature of old power grids often isolates certain districts. If those districts were to suffer an attack, then it would take power to get them back online, but if there’s only one supply route, and it’s been compromised, then those areas could be out for days.
Turning off local water, electric, or chemical plants would have immediate effect, and short term effect of “loss of life,” according to Panetta. To imagine the loss of life, one only needs to think about what would happen in an urban environment if the water stopped running.
Until recently, hackers have been a bit more focused on breaching the security of major companies in order to steal identities and potentially profitable bits of information, or they’ve been focused on embarrassing and denigrating political targets.
With the advent of the Stuxnet virus, the U.S. and Western countries have seen an increase in attention to their infrastructure vulnerabilities. Indeed, Israel reports that they repel daily cyber assaults from Iran’s newly raised ‘cyber corps.’
In the web arena, countries like Iran and China don’t need to foot massive defence bills to compete with the U.S. — all they need is a computer and a modem.
As a response to the threat, Congress and the Obama administration have put forward a number of resolutions, but none thus far have seemed to stick.
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