Every couple of months, a news organization does a special feature on the threat of cyber warfare — armies of hackers, both from private groups and trained military personnel, digging into top secret files of foreign governments with just a few swift keystrokes. Most recently, 60 Minutes featured an analysis of the threat of cyber warfare to U.S. national security.

Cyber warfare is a fascinating topic, mainly because it’s new, mysterious, and potentially could inflict damage comparable to that of a nuclear weapon. Few need to be reminded of the security threats that our increasing inter-connectedness exposes us to on a daily basis: online fraud, identity theft, invasions of privacy, accidentally revealing embarrassing music tastes on Facebook, the list goes on. And because of the nature of the Internet, all of these criminal activities operate internationally, and often in complex yet organized rings. But more sinister cyber attacks have cropped up in recent years — take Estonia’s three-week outage by a denial-of-service attack in 2007. Hackers targeted several government and commercial websites during a conflict between Estonia and Russia, at times “vandalizing” sites with images or altered text. The commercial transactions lost by the DDoS attacks resulted in millions of dollars worth of economic damage.

Denial-of-service attacks are fairly common, and have been a frequent tool in political and international conflicts. DDoS attacks were also used in the conflict between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia, and in various skirmishes between Israeli and Palestiniangroups.

Cyber warfare is becoming an increasingly attractive tool for the tech-savvy and the aggravated, no doubt. Hacking is a huge problem, and so is privacy and security. The more problematic feature for me is when the discussion turns to an end-of-the-world scenario — namely, if cyber attacks are used to bring down a city’s power grid, or water system. From the 60 Minutes report:
“Do we believe that there are, the governments have planted code in the power grid?” Kroft asked.

“Steve, I would be shocked if we were in a situation where tools and capabilities and techniques have not been left in U.S. computer and information systems,” McConnell said.

Of all the critical components in the U.S. infrastructure, the power grid is one of the most vulnerable to cyber attack. The U.S. government has control of its own computers and those of the military. The power grid, which is run and regulated by private utilities, is unbeholden to government security decrees.
The idea of a group of angry yet sophisticated acne-laden teenagers (after all, many of today’s modern hackers are teenage boys) clicking away to bring down an entire power grid is terrifying, to say the least. But how realistic is it? The problem is that few of us are technologically sound enough to understand both the possibilities of hacking and the security design of something like a power grid, leaving us only to trust a handful of “experts” in news stories. Will the cyber warfare discussion evolve into a Cold War-esque nuclear scare as it becomes more and more of a possibility? Surely we have learned by now that fear can’t take priority over hard, verifiable facts. So before we all start doing safety drills under our desks, let’s dig for more information first.

Written by Brianna Lee