Monday, May 4, 2015

EMP and Cyber: Twin Threats but Not Twin Risks

It has been an enlightening but disturbing two weeks on the subject of threats posed by electromagnetic-pulse (EMP) and cyber attacks to America's critical national infrastructure.

In the case of cyber, Defense secretary Ash Carter's April 22nd release of the "DOD CYBER STRATEGY" for 2015 outlines the DoD priorities and responsibilities to the American homeland in the case of cyber conflict.

The stated strategy makes clear that the DoD's primary duty is to defend its own networks, with the objective of keeping its communications necessary for warfare operations intact.

Protection of critical U.S. infrastructure, ninety percent of which is operated by the private sector, receives secondary importance and little detail in the report, which states: "The majority of [private sector] intrusions can be stopped through cybersecurity investments that companies can and must make themselves."

In other words, in case of a crippling national cyber attack, the private sector must plan on fending for itself.

The threats posed by an EMP attack were well chronicled in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on May 1st by Amb. Henry Cooper, former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative and Peter Pry, executive director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security.

The article describes that "An EMP attack, most likely from the detonation of a nuclear weapon in space, would destroy unprotected military and private sector electronics nationwide, blacking out the electric grid for months or years."

The authors point out that such an event would cause widespread death from hunger, disease and social disruption that by some estimates could reach ninety percent of the U.S. population.

Society would crash to a halt. No highways filled with speeding automobiles; no jet trails arching across the morning sky; no brightly-lit skyscrapers, just dark, towering hulks of glass and steel.

In examining this threat, it is important to keep in mind that desire does not equal capability. North Korea or Iran, for example, may have the desire to inflict widespread damage to the U.S., but neither reportedly holds the missile or miniaturized nuclear weapons capability to conduct such an attack.

Nor does capability equal action. U.S.satellites would know the source of any nuclear-caused EMP attack on the United States. Retribution would be expected to be harsh and immediate, likely critically injuring or destroying the assailant.

In contrast, cyber attacks present a different and arguably even more dangerous level of risk.

Due to inherent attribution difficulties, 'false flag' attack capabilities, increasingly-procurable cyber weapons and an inherently larger universe of potential assailants, mounting a counterattack on the true offending party can be a tricky and imprecise exercise. Counterattacking the wrong party would only amplify and worsen an already dangerous global conflict.

EMP and cyber threats are potentially so damaging that both should be treated with the utmost urgency. But it could be argued that cyber threats present the greatest immediate risk.

Looking ahead, one can hope that a cyber-era deterrent like that between the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War will help avoid the consequences either threat.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Will Cyberwarfare Trump Aerospace Power?

By James McFarlin

Congress meets this month to consider the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act and appropriations bill.

Members will debate how to ensure America is prepared to meet tomorrow's national security challenges.

Given the accelerating rate of growth in military power across the globe, this is no easy task. China has a growing ballistic and cruise missile inventory possessing the capability to strike over long ranges. Iran fields a ballistic missiles arsenal able to strike across the Middle East and Europe. Russia has long possessed sophisticated ballistic and cruise missiles.

The cost of defending against such growing threats with traditional aerospace satellite surveillance and anti-missile systems has accelerated to the point where some congressional members of the House Armed Services Committee are suggesting a reevaluation of U.S. defense capabilities before 2016 spending commitments are made.

Such deliberations will be incomplete and perhaps near-obsolete unless a looming threat filling the horizon is addressed.

Cyber attacks against U.S. institutions are not a new phenomenon, Private and government networks have long been the target of cyber espionage, theft and disruption. Moreover, such attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated and more frequent. Recent reports show a 2015 acceleration in attacks of 42% over 2014 levels.

At the same time, advancements in cyber technology are propelling increased use of cloud computing and mobile devices, making U.S. networks even more vulnerable to intrusions by state-sponsored organizations, hackers and terrorists.

In the December 2014 attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment, assailants stole films and internal records and destroyed data files and computer networks. Physical violence was threatened against Americans if the studio released its upcoming film "The Interview" depicting the assassination of N. Korea dictator Kim Jong-un. The confused, conflicting, and oft-reversed Sony and U.S. response to such threats showcased America's unpreparedness for cyber events for the world to see.

Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command, recently warned the house Intelligence Committee of even more dramatic cyber risks. He emphasized that assaults against the networks of industrial-controls systems - the electronic brains behind operation of infrastructure such as the electrical grid, nuclear power plants and air traffic control systems - would cause widespread damage and civilian deaths.

"There shouldn't be any doubt in our minds that there are nation-states and groups with the capability to do this," Adm. Rogers said.

Congress will no doubt give the priorities for future defense spending its serious attention. One can hope lawmakers are aware of the near-geometric expansion of cyber weapons and the increased threats such capabilities contribute to the vulnerability of U.S. networks and critical infrastructure.

Are ever-more advanced generations of existing weapons systems the path to America's future security or are they missing the mark in the cyber age?

Today's technology-fueled global environment suggests that cyber warfare trumping aerospace power may be more a matter of 'whenthan 'if,' and sooner rather than later. A new era has begun.

Monday, April 13, 2015

ISIS vs. Silicon Valley Cyber Wars

By James McFarlin

Terrorist groups such as ISIS are increasingly using social media tools as means of recruitment, training, fundraising and radicalization.  Some estimates place ISIS's volume of Twitter posts alone at 90,000 per day.

Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and other tools also form the basis for the radicals' command and control systems, providing ideal communication and planning tools with which to coordinate attacks.

ISIS and other groups' adept use of social media has attracted an estimated 3,000 Westerners to come to Syria and join the fight.  ISIS also produces a slick monthly English-language magazine named Dabiq.  This professionally-produced publication spreads messages of jihad and hate as well as instructions for terrorist actions such as bomb building and law enforcement avoidance.

Countering such messages is an increasingly difficult task for U.S. security agencies. Terrorist websites can and do pop up in alternative form if taken down, continuing their work.

Frustrated with its lack of social media reach against the terrorists, U.S. authorities have recently turned to America's tech titans to help counter the militants.  Foreign governments have also joined the fray.  French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve recently visited Silicon Valley, urging U.S. tech firms to do more to rid their services of extremist postings.

This awkward relationship has also been aggravated as foreign governments recently assailed American social media companies as being too complicit with the U.S. National Security Agency.

Being drawn into a global war is a foreign experience for tech firms, and leaves them increasingly struggling with uncomfortable requests obliging them to spy on their own users.  Not complying places the firms in the position of being accused of supporting the broadcasting of hateful images that incite terrorism and facilitate radicalization.

Companies such as Apple which have pushed encryption in their products have produced cries of protest from U.S. security agencies.  The FBI, for example, suddenly finds itself less able to tap into the firm's public communications streams.

Other unintended consequences await U.S. firms.  Twitter employees recently received death threats from ISIS groups when the company removed online terrorist content from its data streams.  ISIS has also called out for the assassination of two American imams who have spoken out against the terrorist group's ideology using social media.

Where will these conflicting interests and needs lead?  No one knows for certain.  But the battlefields of the "Twitter wars" as they are sometimes called are clearly in their infancy.  Such conflicts will most certainly be played out in vigorous, unexpected ways over the coming months and years.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Obama Cyber Sanctions: Reality or Illusion?

By James McFarlin

Affirming that cyber threats "pose one of the most serious economic and national security challenges to the United States," President Barack Obama on April 1 announced the intent to level sanctions against hackers, foreign state-owned corporations and nation-states that harmfully attack U.S. critical information networks.

Serious questions remain, however, as to whether such sanctions will have the intended deterrent effect.  Or even take place at all.  Let's look at three major questions on the viability of such actions:

Attribution.  Affirmatively placing blame for attacks is a tricky, many times inconclusive and in all cases elusive endeavor.  Many remember the wide discussion, even heated arguments, over who was actually responsible for the Sony Pictures hack.  The government claimed it was North Korea.  I have been in presentations where impressive evidence was presented that the real attackers were, in one case, Russian, and in a second case, Sony insiders.  This is not an unusual circumstance.

Without confirmation of attacker's identity, how can sanctions or retaliatory action of any type be launched?  They can't.

Type of Response.  What level of sanctions are warranted by specific cyber theft, espionage, or other attacks? What is the process of determination and which government body makes such decisions?  It is widely believed, for example, that the U.S. fumbled the handling of the Sony attacks.

Who is to say future government cyberattack responses under Obama's sanctions order will be any different?  This is unproven territory where it is best to tread carefully.

Foreign Retaliation.  We are living in a world where unintended consequences abound. What if foreign hackers sanctioned for cyber attacks decide to change identities (easily done, in many ways) and make additional, even more damaging attacks on the U.S., such as to our power grid or transportation systems?  What if a nation-state sanctioned for espionage against the U.S. retaliates by stopping all trade with specific American technology firms?

It is not too hard to see that Pandora's Box, once opened by tenuous and perhaps unproven sanctions actions, can rain even more harmful cyber dangers on the U.S.

The point is, the problems of attribution, lack of response definition and the level of potential  'what ifs' may very well checkmate the U.S.-levied sanctions in many, unintended ways, severely limiting the implementation of such actions.

If such sanctions occur at all.  In which case, we have an illusion and a few headlines, nothing more.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

CIA Plays Catch-up to Fight Cyberterrorism

By Jim McFarlin

Cyberterrorism is the number one threat facing the U.S.

The Director of National Intelligence ranked cyberterrorism as the top threat to our country – even more so than threats such as Islamic terrorist groups – in the just-released analysis, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community.”

In a 2014 report, the General Accounting Office found that the FAA as having “ weaknesses which threaten the agency’s ability to ensure the safe and uninterrupted operation of the national airspace.”

The recent cyberattacks against Sony Pictures Entertainment have raised the stakes even higher, creating what cybersecurity professionals have deemed “the dawn of a new age” for cyberattacks. Now, cyberterrorism not only aims for destruction, but to influence behavior.

Where does the nation’s preeminent intelligence agency fit amidst such an array of new cyberthreats facing the United States?

Oddly, out of step.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2015 Marks a Critical Juncture for America's Cyber Security

By Jim McFarlin

2014 was a challenging year for America’s cyber security. Like falling dominos, a wave of corporate, government and military organizations succumbed to damaging, expensive and–in many cases–embarrassing breaches of their information networks.

2015 promises to be even more challenging. The Department of Homeland Security estimated a 215% increase in reported cyberattacks over the past three years, with similar acceleration projected into the foreseeable future.

Last year’s attacks offered many lessons, most notably these:

      It was repeatedly demonstrated that when cyber assailants come to call, the U.S. is vulnerable, unaware, and open to attack. 

      It was also apparent that the safety of personal financial and investment accounts is effectively in the hands of those with malicious intent, not the institutions that hold our assets.

The only positive claim any of those attacked could make was that the damage was contained--and eventually stopped. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these are the institutions that were unaware of their network intrusions for weeks or even months.

Further, in a reported 71% of cases, those being breached only became aware of the attacks once informed by an outside party or government agency.

The list of compromised businesses includes retailer Target, which somehow managed to miss or ignore alerts they were under cyberattack despite 24/7 outside monitoring and the installation of a brand new $1.6 million cybersecurity system just three months before the attacks. The assault swept across the land throughout the year, ravaging the likes of Neiman-Marcus, Michael’s Stores, PF Changs, Home Depot, JPMorgan, and many others.   

JPMorgan, considered the “gold standard” for cyber security in the financial services industry, boasts a staff of 3,000 cybersecurity professionals backed by an annual cybersecurity budget of $250 million. Even this was not enough to stop cyberattackers from hacking account information. In fact, the banking giant realized that up to 83 million accounts had been compromised only after an incidental tip from a third party.

The Sony Pictures attacks in November went beyond data theft, involving not only misappropriation of intellectual property (films), but also destruction of computer systems, extortion, and threats of 9/11-style violence. 

The confused, conflicting, and oft-reversed response from Sony and involved U.S. agencies clearly illustrate yet another lesson from 2014: the U.S. is woefully unprepared to respond to serious cyberattacks in a coherent, effective manner.

With such examples of successful attacks against major institutions, can the organizations that produce and distribute our electrical power be far behind?

The answer is that no such safety, perceived or otherwise, can be taken for granted. In a serious cyberattack against U.S. power generation or distribution facilities, power outages impacting large swaths of the country could continue for weeks, months or longer, rendering traditional preparedness actions ineffective, and in the end, only delaying the inevitable chaos, loss of life and lack of social order.

When considered against the deadly combination of escalating global instability, the growing black market availability of cyber weaponry, and the startling propensity for Islamic extremists to take their war to the home turf of Western democracies in Europe and beyond, cyber insecurity appears to describe America’s future for the coming year.

("Global Networking" Image by bluebay/

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sony, North Korea and the Future of Cyberwarfare

By Jim McFarlin

The recent hack against Sony Pictures Entertainment (widely believed to have been perpetrated by North Korea), its threats of physical violence against Americans, and its successful attempt to restrict our right of free speech can only be termed an attack on America.