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the underground reality of a cyber-attack


November 2015
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We live in a threat-centric world. And not without reason. Paris was recently attacked on November 13, 2015. A Russian plane went down just before taking all 220 lives with it. Paris was also attacked on 7 January of this year in what has come to be known as Charlie Hebdo. But it is the November 13 mass shootings, terrorist attacks, suicide bombings and hostage situation occurring simultaneously, which cause deep concern. In France’s capital, Paris, as well as in Saint Denis, its northern suburb at various locations: Stade de France, Bataclan theatre, Le Petit Cambodge, le Carillon, La Belle Equipe, Café Bonne Biere, La Casa Nostra, Comptoir Voltaire. They were all fatal ground attacks. Like NY’s 9/11, which claimed about 3000 lives. Rwanda, Syria, Lebanon, Mumbai, Pakistan, Afghanistan etc., too have all sustained attacks, on or above ground.

But on-the-ground attacks aren’t the only concern. Digital attacks occur, too. In media, The Interview was pulled from cinemas because of a cyber attack on Sony by North Korea. One film. One hacking. One shutdown, but many losses to Hollywood. In defense, there was the “sophisticated cyber intrusion,” which affected about 4,000 military and civilian personnel on July 25, 2015, and which forced the Pentagon to take the email system offline. Then there was Target, and banks, most noteworthy one being the sophisticated attempts like North Korea knocking out almost 50,000 servers and computers in South Korea for several days at banks and media coms. Even the IRS, too was compromised this year: 334,000 people hacked, and it didn’t matter how safe your computer was at home or office!  The IRS paid billions to hackers in 2013.

All of these attacks were carried out on the Internet, and effortlessly for those who knew how. And they were carried out ‘wirelessly’. But what about attacks not on the ground nor the cloud?

Recently, Kate Murphy opened the door to myriad questioning in her “Underground Cyber Threats” [NY Times 8 November 15]. What if we sustained an attack ‘not’ on our wireless access – which has been easily disconnected or hacked – but on the cables on which this wireless access resides? On the cables which lie underground?

The Internet infrastructure is a network of cables, where cables span as much as 30 miles to connect 100,000 people. These cables are also vulnerable to today’s gun violence tendency that plagues us and the extremely precarious trigger-happy nations and hackers. We already know what is it like to have a statewide blackout for electricity following the one in NY in 2003, when we thought the blackout was another terrorist attack after 9/11. It shut down NY leaving people scared witless everywhere in cramped, closed, suffocating subway cars for hours while others walked for hours to their homes on foot etc. Today, we rely on ‘digital current’ as we rely on electricity to see and perform daily activities. But what would happen if there was a digital blackout?

Such an underground digital blackout or attack would shut down everything, hitting hard our reliance on connection to others, on running the country, on manning security, on regulating finances compromising personal info for those who bank electronically, including the banks. FaceBook made it possible for folks to connect to their loved ones in Paris recently in the face of fear and mayhem, but what if that connection was gone and the many other connections along with it?

Worse, what if there was a coordinated attack on multiple places in USA or elsewhere or even in several countries simultaneously, November 13th Paris-style ?

Recent attacks have shown us how debilitating and real terror is and that nothing is foolproof. We concentrate on monitoring social media and above-the-ground attacks, increasing security with guns around major trains stations in first world countries, gov’t buildings and others places whenever an attack occurs in a major city like Paris or London or NY. Such big fortresses prove that nothing and no one is invulnerable in today’s highly digital, trigger-happy world. Russia, China, USA, Japan and Brazil etc are concentrating on cybercrime products but perhaps so, too the attackers, who are always searching for newer, better ways to infiltrate the extended network.

Yet, if the cables that run social media and other governmental controls, including security are cut, there’ll not even be a threat for stolen data or leaks, because we won’t have any digital ‘electricity’ to even fire off any of the processes, investigations, or actions so necessary to catch hackers or cybercriminals. When we rely on systems that have hidden vulnerabilities and where cybercriminals are devoting their time to finding and exploiting, we must keep constant vigil, and have a forward0thinking mind-set.  If it was easy to prevent cyberthreats and attacks, ISIS would be stopped, because logically any cyber centric approach should be able to curb them, but it is not happening. One thing the so-called spear-phishing attack on the invincible Pentagon exposed is a new and different vulnerability not seen before. Like the giants of our past – the dinosaurs- who failed to survive despite strength and so much power, an underground attack to our wireless system would be a Cyber pearl harbor.




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