Have Cyber-Threats Surpassed Terrorism and Nuclear War?
Much of the Trump administration's reset of foreign relations with nations hostile to the interests of the United States has revolved around the issue of nuclear proliferation. New negotiations as well as directional shifts in deals initiated by the Obama administration have established a new American position on handling existential threats.
Despite Iran and the European Union's best efforts to save the controversial 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement via a "special vehicle" designed to bypass U.S. sanctions, many speculate that these efforts will prove to be futile since the sanctions would effectively cut off any business that conducts or facilitates an oil transaction with Iran from America's financial system. This would be tantamount to a death sentence for most international businesses.
President Trump is asking "all nations to isolate Iran's regime" and to deny it "the funds it needs to advance its bloody agenda." Despite this, in a showing of solidarity, France, Germany, Britain, Russia, and China all declared themselves behind what is expected to be an ineffective end-run play.
Meanwhile, in another corner of the world, the North Korean and American "high-stakes poker game" regarding denuclearization continues. Although the president maintains that his actions have prevented a nuclear war that was all but certain, the anticipated timeline toward the complete dismantling of North Korea's nuclear infrastructure has appeared to be scrapped.
"We're not playing the time game," Trump told the press gathered in New York covering his address to the United Nations General Assembly. "If it takes two years, three years, or five months, doesn't matter."
Just days after this announcement, new revelations regarding the current nuclear capabilities of North Korea came to light. South Korean unification minister Cho Myoung-Gyon stated to the National Assembly that the size of North Korea's nuclear arsenal now sits between 20 to potentially as many as 60 bombs, according to information obtained from intelligence authorities.
But despite these developments, a very important member of the current administration has teased that advances in the capabilities and reach of our enemies in the cyber-sphere have surpassed even the long feared threats of terrorism and "mutually assured destruction" via nuclear war.
Recently, in a speech just prior to the 17th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told attendees, "DHS was founded fifteen years ago to prevent another 9/11. I believe an attack of that magnitude is now more likely to reach us online than on an airplane," she said. "Our digital lives are in danger like never before."
When alluding to her belief that modern threats aren't just "sci-fi anymore," she added, "The pace of innovation, our hyper connectivity and our digital dependence have opened cracks in our defenses, creating new opportunities and new vectors through which these nefarious actors can strike us. The result is a world where threats are more numerous, more widely distributed, highly networked, increasingly adaptive, and incredibly difficult to root out."
Some of the specific cyber-threats known to have originated from Iran and North Korea include:
- The "'Hidden Cobra' cyber-attack" initiated by a North Korean APT hacker group just this year.
- The infamous attacks on Sony Entertainment after the 2014 release the controversial "The Interview" film depicting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Additionally, threats like TDSS Rootkit, which is part of an aggressive online scheme that leverages forms of affiliate marketing to make money for egregious hackers, is thought to be rooted from hackers out of the Russian Federation.
Doubling down on the comments from Nielsen was Scott Borg, director and chief economist of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, when he told Wisconsin Public Radio that a sophisticated cyber-attack on America would be eclipsed in damage only by a nuclear attack.
"Pretty much everything these days is run by computers. If you think of any industry that we depend on all the time – electricity, oil and gas, banking and railroads – it's all run by computers. A really sophisticated cyber-attack would be like putting an enemy agent in charge of the computers that run all those things," Borg said.
There have already been hundreds of known attacks against the United States by another country with a complicated relationship with America. A leaked NSA map obtained by NBC News in the summer of 2015 showed where the Chinese government's damaging cyber-campaign was executed against every sector of the U.S economy.
In this possible rethinking of the order of priority for American defense, another quote from Borg is particularly sobering: "Imagine the damage you could do if you could control all the railroad switches and signals, direct the trains at any speed you wanted to crash into each other, arrange the crashes to take place on tunnels and bridges, control all the pressures and temperatures at an oil refinery. Pretty much all of these critical infrastructures could be physically destroyed by cyberattacks."
In the '80s, the television movie The Day After created a horrifying image of the aftermath of a fictional war between the United States and the Soviet Union. At the time, President Reagan wrote in his diary that the film was "very effective and left me greatly depressed."
The thought of a full-scale nuclear holocaust was the primary fear of "Baby Boomers" and "Generation X." We'll have to wait to see what this generations' made-for-Millennials image of Armageddon looks like in the digital age.