Paris attack: Will it take 'cyber 911' for people to see the risk?

“Life’s essentials; water, food production, refrigeration, heat, light could be disabled very quickly…” wrote Carl Herberger, Vice President of Security at Radware in a statement last night.

“Critical infrastructure in an attractive target for terrorists because of the immense operational and economic damage that would occur with any major shutdown,” cyber expert, Cameron Brown tells IDG Connect.

While Chancellor George Osborne warned the UK that that Islamic State militants are in the process of developing weapons to cyber-attack core civilian targets like hospitals or air traffic control.

Over the phone from the US this morning Herberger is very worried indeed about the threat cyber-warfare poses. “I think with the trend we’re on, it is a forecastable event,” he says.

“We have been trying to protect people’s identities for decades. Yet there have been almost daily attacks.” If we can’t protect people’s identities against crime, what hope can we possibly have against more insidious ideological threats?

Herberger believes part of the security issues is this is still not in most ordinary people’s consciousness. And it will most likely take one attack – like 911 – to show people the true danger of a mass coordinated cyber-attack.

Normally you wait for evidence, he says: “the risk here is so high we have to act on the suspicion”.

Strategies for addressing the threat of digital violence from cyberterrorism are “fundamentally different” from those targeting cybercrime, Brown tell us.

He warns the traditional command and control structure will not succeed in tackling the threat of cyberterrorism. And describes it as “akin to using a chainsaw to engage a swarm of angry bees”.

“Governments must protect their civilians and critical infrastructure from cyber-attacks,” he adds.

He says these should develop “scientific technology to impede terrorists from hitting their targets, or to mitigate the effects of a cyber-attack that has not been avoided”.  This should include “proactive strategies must penetrate and disarm terror organisations and networks through a combination of intelligence gathering and affirmative action”.

Critical infrastructure is run by computers and has to be deployed with a degree of safety, says Herberger. Yet at present “none of it is not tested for cybersecurity” – not planes, trains or automobiles.

Herberger stresses that as well as more investment in information security – especially to mitigate insider threats – it is crucial for people to understand that “cybersecurity can affect human life”. This is not just about embarrassment, social humiliation and theft – which can be hideous enough – it can spell the difference between life and death.

“The threat of cyberterrorism is most ominous when considered as an adjunct to other terrorist activity,” says Brown. “If a cyber-attack occurs at the same time as a conventional terrestrial attack, it can compound and magnify the primary attack vector.”

The really shocking thing about the attack on Paris was that it was orchestrated across so many different locations. But just imagine if it had included a co-ordinated plane crash – via air traffic control; an attack on a hospital – via the computer network; and a blast on the water supply – via smart metering too?

And could spread even deeper into the framework of our daily lives. “A coordinated cyber-attack against the stock exchange could significantly damage multiple sectors of the economy and lead to investor panic and unpredictable behaviour, especially in the wake of the global financial crisis,” says Brown.

“Fear itself is contagious, and panic within financial markets snowballs into paranoia associated with unforeseen future consequences,” he adds.

At present the threat of cyber-warfare is still a misunderstood, unknown threat. Yet it will only take one event to show ordinary people the true terror this could bring. Better cybersecurity measures must be put in place before ‘cyber 911’ strikes.


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