On Point: American Cyber-Security

by Austin Bay
January 12, 2010

Computer-savvycrooks constantly probe America'spremier financial institutions. The new generation of safecrackers doesn't needdynamite or drills, but uses digital tricks that include breaking encryptedcodes (like passwords) or inserting Trojan horses, worms and other computerviruses into the information systems of banks and investment firms.

Americandefense systems are also vulnerable. Given America'sreliance on computers and digital data links, this means weapons, weaponsdelivery platforms (e.g., airplanes), intelligence systems (satellites) andcommunications systems, from tactical radios to global strategic systems, facea digital threat.

Filchingvideo from American Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) operating over Iraqand elsewhere serves as an example of a type of cyber-theft. StrategyPage.compointed out last Dec. 18 why Predator video feeds could be intercepted usingoff-the-shelf programs for stealing commercial television satellitetransmission. "(S)ometimes, you take a chance," StrategyPageobserved. "And then you get caught. For years, the video from UAV wasunencrypted. This was to save communications capacity ("bandwidth"),which was always in short supply. To encrypt the video would require morebandwidth, and specialized equipment on the UAVs and ground receivers. ... Thiswas not a secret, it was known to people in the business. Now everyone knows,and encryption, and all its costs, will be added to UAV video broadcasts."

StrategyPagenoted this was not a "hack" to the Predator's digital controls, butakin to electronic eavesdropping or tapping a telephone. However, the prospectof taking over the computers running an aircraft or commo system -- or, in thecivilian sector, a city's electrical grid -- concerns cyber-warriors.

TheU.S.military believes digital communications systems capable of creating"shared situational awareness" are critical to 21st centurymodernization. "Shared situational awareness" is Pentagonese forletting soldiers know where they are located, where friendly forces arepositioned and what the enemy is doing. A digital system connectinginfantrymen, tanks, helicopters, aircraft and ships would permit soldiers toshare real-time intelligence, find the best defensive position or select thebest available weapon to strike the enemy.

Areliable system passing accurate locations and weapons effects data wouldgreatly lower the risk of "friendly fire" striking friendly units.However, can cyber security protecting such a complex "battlefieldwi-fi" fend off enemy hackers employing armies of digital worms and Trojanhorses?

"Appmania" (use of computer applications in digital devices) afflicts everycommunity on the planet with a cell tower and Internet connection. Peopledownload billions of applications each year. Despite antivirus software, eachdownload risks viral infection. According to thetechherald.com, in September2009 the Zeus Trojan "family of Malware" infected 3.6 millionpersonal computers in the U.S.,and Zeus viruses target "banking related information."

Acalculated cyber-attack that disrupts or destroys the civilian Internet wouldhave immense financial consequences. Disrupting military digital communicationsand targeting systems at a critical moment in war could be catastrophic.

Cyber-securityexperts I have interviewed on background tell me they fear that America'sability to protect its digital systems from cyber-assault has deteriorated,despite spending hundreds of billions for digital defense (to include"hard defense" like protected cabling for fiber optics networks andsophisticated firewalls).

Thereare a number of reasons. Chinaand other potential adversaries employ cyber-warfare battalions -- the hackers'techniques have improved. Modern software itself is complex and sometimesdifficult to troubleshoot. Constant patching and updating createsvulnerabilities. Attacks can also be launched from inside an organization, by a"cyber-saboteur." Defense and intelligence agencies take thecyber-traitor scenario quite seriously.

Lastmonth, the Obama administration appointed Howard Schmidt as"cyber-czar." Schmidt has an impressive resume, with civilian andgovernmental cyber-security experience. His portfolio could extend through allfederal civilian, intelligence and military agencies -- and perhaps it should.He will coordinate both Pentagon and Homeland Security cyber-operations.

Schmidtmust use his clout to develop new security tools and systems that will protect America'sdigital devices and networks. The challenge, however, is immense. The Centerfor Strategic and International Studies report "Securing Cyberspace forthe 44th Presidency" (dated December 2008) said the U.S.needs a "comprehensive national security strategy for cyber-space."Achieving that goal should be on Schmidt's agenda. 

Read Austin Bay's Latest Book

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


On Point Archives:

On Point Archives: Current 2021  2020  2019  2018  2017  2016  2015  2014  2013  2012  2011  2010  2009  2008  2007  2006  2005  2004  2003  2002  2001



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close