Cyberattacks are unavoidable, but we’re not going to stop using computerized systems. Instead, we should be preparing for the inevitable, including a major cyberattack on power grids and other essential systems. This requires the ability to anticipate not only an unprecedented event but also the ripple effects that it could cause.
Here’s an example of second-order effects (though not caused by a cyberattack, they’re a good way to think through what could happen in an attack). In February 2017, an area of Wyoming was hit by a strong wind storm that knocked down many power lines. It took about a week to restore power, due to heavy snow and frozen ground. Initially, water and sewage treatment continued with backup generators. But the pumps that moved sewage from low-lying areas to the treatment plants on higher ground were not designed to have generators, since they could hold several days’ worth of waste. After three days with no power, they started backing up. The water then had to be cut off to prevent backed-up waste water from getting into homes. The area had never lost power for so long, so no one had anticipated such a scenario.
Now think about what would happen if a cyberattack brought down the power grid in New York, for example. New Yorkers could manage for a few hours, maybe a few days, but what would happen if the outage lasted a week or more? For an example of the kind of disruption such an attack could cause, consider the 2011 Japanese tsunami. It knocked out both the power lines and the backup generators at the same time. Either event could have been managed, but both occurring at the same time was a disaster. Without power, the cooling systems in three nuclear reactors failed, resulting in massive radiation exposure and concerns about the safety of food and water. The lesson: We need to prepare not only for an unexpected event but also for the possible secondary effects.
My brother can’t function in the morning until he has a cup of coffee. So I use his daily routine as an example.
Picture my brother stumbling down to the kitchen one morning only to find his internet-enabled coffee maker won’t work. There’s a message on his iPhone: “We have taken control of your coffee pot and unless you pay $5, you won’t have your coffee.” This actually hasn’t happened. At least, not yet.
I have been talking about the security threats to common household items connected to the internet – that is, the Internet of Things (IoT) – for several years now, and unfortunately, every other dire warning has come true so far. Upper management has to take greater notice of risks exposed both in the products they produce and the products that they use and take action to mitigate those risks. Recent events underscore this need.
Two years ago an internet-enabled refrigerator was commandeered and began sending pornographic spam while making ice cubes. Baby monitors have been turned into eavesdropping devices and there are concerns about the security of medical devices, such as computerized insulin pumps. In October, thousands of security cameras were hacked to create a massive Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) against Dyn, a provider of critical Domain Name System (DNS) services to companies like Twitter, AirBnB, etc. Then there is the recent disclosure of CIA tools for hacking IoT devices, such as Samsung SmartTVs, to turn them into listening devices. These are only a few examples highlighting the threats.
A few years ago I was working with a small consulting firm, and one of our up and coming salespeople left for a competitor. No big deal. It happens. But several months later, the management team noticed a disturbing trend. The company kept losing bids for new business to this very same competitor. It had happened four times in a row when finally we realized that we’d forgotten to turn off the former employee’s network access. He had been logging into our network, stealing our information, and then undercutting us. Read More »