What is the greatest threat to national security? Some experts believe it is cyber warfare – whether waged by terrorists, government-sponsored hackers, or militaries. A cyberattack has the potential to disable communication systems, knock out the power grid, and send cities into chaos.
That’s the message of a new book by veteran journalist Ted Koppel called Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath. Koppel begins by painting a picture of a hypothetical doomsday scenario in which the power is out, grocery store shelves are quickly emptying, and millions of unprepared people are panicking.
“The assumption that the city, the state, or even the federal government has the plans and the wherewithal to handle this particular crisis is being replaced by the terrible sense that people are increasingly on their own,” Koppel writes.
Of course, most people will lack the means to be self-reliant. Under the Obama economy, dependency on food stamps and other government programs that provide basic needs is at record highs. Habituated dependency can be deadly in a crisis. You don’t want to be among the desperate people waiting in lines for rations of emergency provisions. You need to prepare now for a cyber-attack.
Russia, China, North Korea Have Cyber Warfare Capabilities
How likely is the scenario Koppel outlines to play out? More likely than most people imagine. The probabilities of at least some disruptions occurring in some areas of your life due to a cyber-attack are off the charts. Whether it’s a malicious computer virus targeting the financial system or a physical attack on Internet infrastructure, you need to be Ready for Anything.
Russia recently raised fear levels among some national security experts after Russian submarines and spy ships were found to be positioned near under-sea internet cables. Even in an era of wireless communications, these networks are still ultimately dependent on highspeed fiber-optic cables to carry bandwidth.
According to the New York Times, fiber-optic cables transmit more than 95% of global communications, including $10 trillion in daily global transactions. The economy as we know it would grind to a halt if these cables were all disabled or cut.
U.S. intelligence officials believe Russia has deep-sea submarines that are capable of cutting fiber-optic cables, some of which were installed by the U.S. military. The speculation is that Russia wants to be able to shut off U.S. communications or possibly intercept some of the data being transmitted.
It’s speculation. Some of it may be overblown with regard to Russia’s strategic aims. Some in government and the media are all too eager to paint Vladimir Putin as more of an adversary than he actually is or intends to be. The U.S. and the Soviet Union narrowly averted a nuclear war in the last century. A new Cold War with Russia would be extremely dangerous for all involved.
But there’s a very real possibility that geopolitical tensions could escalate with Russia, China, or other dangerous powers.
During the most recent Republican presidential (undercard) debate, Chris Christie vowed, “If the Chinese commit cyber warfare against us, they are going to see cyber warfare like they have never seen before.” The New Jersey governor says he was the victim of a massive electronic data theft by Chinese hackers targeting U.S. government databases.
EMP Bombs Can Disable Our Power Grid At a Stroke
Then there’s the threat of an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) attack.
In Lights Out, Koppel notes that it would be relatively easy for a nuclear-armed power such as North Korea to take out much of the U.S. electronic infrastructure. All the enemy would have to do is detonate specialized nuclear weapons in the sky, causing electronics-disabling EMPs to spread for hundreds of miles. Top-level CIA sources confirm this, with some
suggesting that Russia has shared some of its EMP bomb technology with the North Koreans and Iranians.
Potentially any electronic device you own – including your phone, appliances, and even your car – could be wrecked by an EMP bomb. You can shield devices from electro-magnetic pulses by placing them inside an insulated and sealed metal container (also known as a Faraday cage). It’s a good idea to have Faraday cages ready in case of a threat – and to use them for storing some of your devices now. That way in the event of a sudden, unexpected EMP event, you’ll still have some functioning devices to access when it’s over.
Your “Attack Surface” Vulnerabilities
Other types of attacks against electronic devices can be carried out over the Internet. Ted Koppel calls Internetconnected devices “attack surfaces,” because they can be targeted directly by hackers and serve as gateways to larger-scale attacks. Among the examples he gives are “smart” thermostats (which are connected to smart meters, which are connected to the power company).
From Lights Out: “The ‘smart’ thermostat that automatically lowers the temperature in a customer’s home at night or warms his kitchen before he gets up in the morning has to be connected to the company’s billing department, which in turn needs to be connected to whatever department actually conveys electricity to the home. Each connection provides another potential attack surface.”
Anything that connects to the Internet can be hacked, even if you think the connection is secure. Nothing that connects to the Internet – whether it’s a computer or a “smart” toothbrush – should be regarded as innocuous. They are all potential attack surfaces and privacy violators. If you want to minimize your risk, then minimize the number of Internet-connected devices in your home. And physically disable your Internet connection when you’re not using it.
The Practical Utility of Preparing
Koppel’s book offers other practical steps people can take to guard against the threats he discusses. He dedicates an entire chapter to “The Mormons,” who are taught to keep a three-month supply of food and water. Mormons also have strong formal social networks (with each ward having an emergency plan in place). Preparedness habits like these are certainly worth emulating.
Prepping isn’t just something to do for a doomsday scenario which may never come to pass. It’s something to do to improve the quality of your life here and now. As Koppel puts it, “…the overall utility of preparing for hard times, with a rotating larder, participation in a social network, and the establishment of a financial safety net, is eminently adaptable and useful even in the absence of catastrophe.”
Lights Out shouldn’t be mistaken for a how-to manual. Reading it will make you more aware of the threat of cyber terrorism, and it will give you a few suggestions on how to prepare. But Ted Koppel seems to see it as his primary mission in this book to help wake up policymakers. He advocates new legislation, new expenditures to make our vulnerable grid system more secure, and more of a recognition among Homeland Security officials as to the cyber threats posed by foreign governments and malicious hackers.
No piece of legislation and no amount of spending on security will eliminate the cyber threat, of course. When the lights do go out, will you have what you need to survive – and survive comfortably – for days or weeks at a time? If not, then it’s time to get busy preparing…