If you were to ask a post 9-11 American what the biggest threat to national security is, you’d probably only get one answer: terrorism. Certainly, the September 11 attacks brought the threat of terrorist assault to the forefront of people’s minds.
However, as the years have passed and new dangers have emerged on the world stage, some of us might be startled to learn that terrorism is no longer considered to be the number one threat to national security; cyber attacks are.
It makes sense, when you think about it. After all, with the proliferation of the internet in the last two decades, it’s become standard for every aspect of government, as well as the personal and public lives of almost every United States citizen, to be connected to the rest of the world via the Web. Our state secrets, personal information, financial data, and a hundred trillion other sensitive details are all available to those who know how to circumvent cyber security. This means that almost everything that we hold as being valuable can be represented digitally, and that makes it vulnerable.
The estimated cost of having to prepare for, defend against, and repair damage done by cyber attacks results in an estimated annual cost of over $1 trillion. These, more often than not, are attacks that target businesses and financial institutions, both civilian and government owned. However, petty theft isn’t the only danger crawling along the virtual strands of information that make up the Web.
State sponsored cyber-espionage teams are taking advantage of new technologies and worldwide connectivity to wage an invisible coldware against their perceived enemies. These groups operate on unofficial capacities, and are made up of professionally trained hackers who are able to operate full time outside of the law to further the goals of their various governments.
These groups, when coupled with the growing internal and external threat of cyber terrorists and anarchists, represent a danger that is almost impossible to defend against.
For one thing, cyber attackers are often able to apply their trade with little to no danger to themselves. At the same time, given the relative infancy of cyber crime, national and international laws are still rushing to keep up with the criminals. Thus, the legal aspects of cyber attacks are often very difficult to enforce, or even identify.
Perhaps most alarming, is the fact that cyber attacks allow nations and organizations to engage in very real, and very damaging acts of war, without being exposed to the criticism and censure of the international community.
Also, given the virtual nature of the attacks, defence becomes very difficult to uphold. There are, after all, hundreds of different strategies that hackers have been known to use to gain access to a system. In addition to basic brute force attacks, criminals may use existing security weaknesses, as well as malware (such as trojans and viruses), cracked passwords, phishing programs, packet sniffers, and many other methods to capture or corrupt data. Recently, certificate exploits, which involve the capture or forging of digital certificates, have allowed hackers authorized access to networks, thus bypassing most existing security measures and threat intelligence. This is partially how intelligence information regarding national and international surveillance efforts was able to be stolen from the NSA.
The sad truth is that things are only going to get worse. The President, along with various intelligence and security agencies are working hard to identify and defend against potential cyber attacks, but the dangers are simply too numerous.
So, as we move further into the 21st Century, it isn’t the car bomb or the hijacked airplane that represents the greatest risk to our national well being; it’s the computer virus and the cracked password. Hopefully, as our nation begins to take these threats more and more seriously, we’ll be able to construct new defences that are capable of adequately protecting our information.
However, until then, the Unites States is secretly engaged in a virtual cold war, and our enemies are everywhere.