A combination of recent events and a recently published book have made me think about the state of our nation’s cybersecurity.
Within the past several weeks, North Korea has been testing missiles capable of launching a nuclear weapon. It is also suspected that the government of North Korea or supporters of the government have launched a series of cyberattacks on South Korean computer networks as well as networks in other countries. The combination of North Korea’s bellicose and seemingly paranoid government, its small but dangerous nuclear stockpile and its sophistication in computer technology make it clear that it is an extremely dangerous nation to the rest of the world.
And, of course, it is not alone. Iran’s government has shown to what extent it will go to remain in power over the past month. Although the Iranian government claims that its nuclear energy programs are purely peaceful, many Western analysts doubt this. Iran already has powerful missiles.
The danger posed by North Korea, Iran and other countries run by rogue leaders is that these countries need not launch an all-out nuclear attack on the United States or its allies to do immense damage. American society, the American economy, government and even the military have become massively dependent on computer and Internet technology over the past decades.
Computer chips are now integral to everything from the national electric grid system, military command and control to virtually all new automobiles and even the most common household products. If an enemy of the United States were able to cause these electronic parts to fail or were able to shut down Internet communications, the results are frightening.
Although the Web attacks suffered by Korea and its allies were not, happily, crippling, they are a reminder that there are many individuals and governments in the world quite willing to use the Internet as a vehicle for launching an attack against the United States. Although these most recent attacks were relatively unsophisticated, most analysts believe that far more sophisticated and dangerous attacks are possible, if not probable. Many of these same analysts are worried that the United States government, American industry and the American public are inadequately protected from such attacks.
The book I mentioned reading earlier is a novel by William Fortschen, “One Second After.” Fortschen is a friend of Newt Gingrich and the book’s subject was apparently suggested to Fortschen by Gingrich. Whether one likes or dislikes the former speaker of the House, this novel is a good read and illustrates another danger of inadequate preparation for attacks on our electronic and digital infrastructure.
The book’s premise is quite simple: An unknown enemy launches several small nuclear weapons set to explode in the atmosphere at key locations above the United States. The explosions unleash a strong electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that destroys unshielded computer chips throughout America. As a result, the electric grid goes down, automobiles stop working, hospital equipment dies, planes fall out of the skies. The United States is literally thrown back to the Dark Ages, and chaos results.
While the book may be overdone, its message is not: America’s dependence on computer technology makes it highly vulnerable to attack by small ruthless nations or terrorist groups, attack on a scale that would make the events of 9/11 pale by comparison.
So what should we do? I’m not suggesting that we give up modern technology. But I think that government — federal, state and local — and every individual should do two things at least: Make sure that any electronic equipment upon which you depend is shielded against both a Web-based attack and an EMP burst. Second, keep backups that can sustain you if an attack occurs and modern technology is damaged.
I would imagine that many of us in Kansas used to storms and power outages have done the second. Now’s the time to do the first as well.