Cyber attacks against critical infrastructures are increasing and have the potential to wipe out the United States most important societal functions.
“We’re not quite in a world where attacks on our critical infrastructure can wipe us out imminently, but we are headed in that direction,” said Michael Daniel, special assistant to the president for cyber security.
“And there are actors out there today who are clearly targeting our critical infrastructure and are intent on causing us harm. So that is something that we’re very concerned about.”
Critical infrastructure currently remains very reliant on computer networks to function properly and efficiently.
Daniel outlined cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, such as electrical power, financial, transportation, communications and other vital systems, as one of the four main cyber threats facing the country.
Security analysts say one of the most devastating potential cyber attacks would be a coordinated strike on the U.S. financial system. About $13 trillion flows daily through the banking system, a network that is not backed by gold or even physical currency. The integrity of the bank system is the banking reconciliation software system.
Sophisticate foreign state hackers or terrorists could break into the financial system, contaminate or destroy the data and create a cascading crisis for the economy and the country, as well as the world economy.
Daniel identified another key threat to the United States as the use of cyber espionage to steal intellectual property, a problem that has only been recognized by the government as a priority threat within the past decade.
China remains a major source of intellectual property theft by cyber means and is one of the most aggressive states engaged in cyber espionage.
U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that on average U.S. companies lose about $250 billion a year in intelligence property through cyber means. Most of that theft is related to high-technology development and innovative developments that represent a key strategic economic advantage for the United States over other nations. U.S. intellectual property drives the economy and is the basis for its strength. Because so much of the propriety data is stored on easily accessible networks, “we’re actually very worried” about the foreign and criminal theft of the information, Daniel says.
Like economic espionage, traditional espionage against the government is a third major threat faced by the United States and the use of computers for cyber spying is a growing threat.
“Of course espionage has been going on for as long as humans have been in societies, 15- to 20,000 years, but cyber space has made doing that espionage an easier thing,” Daniel said during a speech to the U.S. Naval Academy’s new Center for Cyber Security Studies.
“So we’re very concerned about blocking that threat and thwarting that threat to our national security and our national economic security.”
Last, Daniel said the Internet itself is threatened by foreign governments that are seeking to control and limits its use for political purposes.
“There are a lot of countries out there that don’t like the fact that the Internet is global, that it’s transparent, that it’s open, that it provides a venue a venue for the free exchange of ideas and the promotion of human rights.”
Non-democratic regimes are working hard to shut down the free Internet and splinter it as a way to control political dissent.
These states, which were not named by Daniel, want to control of the Internet and force the World Wide Web to comply with government restrictions.
“From the [Obama] administration’s standpoint we’re working very hard to protect that open and global transparent Internet,” Daniel said.
However a closer look at the administration’s security policies since 2009 raise questions about whether adequate steps have being taken to address all the threats.
For example, on critical infrastructure, U.S. intelligence agencies have known since 2009 that foreign nations including China and Russia carried out reconnaissance of U.S. electrical grid – in preparation for future cyber attacks — and have planted clandestine software within the networks that control the grid.
Additionally, the administration has refused to take seriously the threat posed by China and continues to cooperate with Beijing in sharing both technology and data on U.S. advanced electrical grid know-how, the so-called “smart grid” technology.
In February, Secretary of State John Kerry identified smart grid electrical network technology as one of five key elements of the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group. Because the basic assumption of such talks is that China poses no threat, the Chinese in the past decade have obtained valuable strategic intelligence through such cooperation that analyst say could be used in future cyber attacks against the U.S. grid in a crisis or conflict.
Similarly, on espionage the administration has failed to aggressively pursue foreign spies engaged in both traditional and cyber espionage, against both government and the private sector.
Since the 2010 arrest and deportation of 12 Russia “illegal” SVR intelligence officers, the administration has not arrested or charged one foreign intelligence officer, despite widespread foreign government intelligence operations that are underway in the United States.
Also, the number of espionage-related cases involving Americans steadily declined under the Obama administration. From 2009, when seven faced spying charges, to 2010, when 17 were arrested, the numbers of spy arrests has declined. There were five espionage-related arrests in 2011, one in 2012, three in 2013 and none so far this year.
The administration’s support for Internet freedom and opposition to foreign government control also has diminished.
In 2012, the administration fought a Russian proposal amend United Nations’ International Telecommunications Regulations to place the Internet under UN control.
However, on March 14, the Commerce Department announced it will give up control over the nonprofit group, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) next year.
The decision drew harsh criticism from Internet freedom advocates. “What is the global Internet community that Obama wants to turn the Internet over to? This risks foreign dictatorships defining the Internet,” said Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a tweet.
Daniel said in his remarks that the administration opposes proposals by non-democratic states such as China, Russia, and Iran to place control of the Internet under an international organization.
“It is not enough for us to assume that the status quo that we’ve enjoyed for the last 15 or 20 years that has enabled the Internet to thrive as an open platform are simply going to endure,” Daniel said.
“We face a real risk that the multi-stakeholder approach, this approach that has enabled the platform that is the Internet to bring civilians greater transparency, dissidents a protected voice, and economies increased growth will soon change and not for the better,” he added.
— Bill Gertz
March 29, 2014