Monday, December 7, 2009

Is a 'digital Pearl Harbor' in our future?


Dec. 7 is the anniversary of the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor that crippled the U.S. Pacific fleet and brought this country into World War II. What have we learned in the 68 years since that world-changing day?

The threat in our age is less to ships and aircraft than to the technology that controls so many aspects of our lives. Many observers have warned that our defenses are not adequate to protect our nation’s critical infrastructure, and the phrase Electronic or Digital Pearl Harbor has been commonly used to describe a surprise cyber attack that could cripple our military and commercial capabilities. Dire as these warnings are, we should take them with a grain of salt.

Although cyber threats are real, the chances of a Digital Pearl Harbor remain small. This is due not so much to the success of our cyber defenses, which in many places remain inadequate, but to the realities of warfare and networking. Blowing a fleet out of the water is not easy, but taking down a network—-I mean really taking it down, to the point where it is gone for good—-is even harder.

There are those who disagree. Ira Winkler, former employee of the National Security Agency and now a consultant and writer, for years scoffed at the idea and called comparisons digital attacks to Pearl Harbor “insulting.” But in a recent blog posting tellingly titled “I Was Wrong: There Probably Will Be an Electronic Pearl Harbor,” he changes his opinion somewhat.

What changed, he writes, is the smart grid. By creating a vulnerable, ubiquitous infrastructure that is tied in with our national power grid, we have greatly increased the potential for a strategic attack doing long-term damage, he said. “While I will not cry wolf and say it is imminent, I sadly realize that an Electronic Pearl Harbor is now very possible.” GNC

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