China could "cause localized, temporary disruptive effects on critical infrastructure—such as disruption of a natural gas pipeline for days to weeks—in the United States. We've seen inklings of this for years. At the Black Hat cybersecurity conference this year, Microsoft warned that Russian state-sponsored hackers may be trying to spy on companies by hacking into vulnerable office Internet of Things IoT devices connected to corporate networks.
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Is that a paper jam, or has Moscow come knocking? In early August, meanwhile, security firm Proofpoint revealed that emails impersonating the US National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying were sent to three unnamed US companies in the utilities sector. Attached to the emails were Word docs full of malware that, once installed, could enable hackers to delete files, take screenshots, move and click mice, and more. Proofpoint declined to place blame on any one entity but suggested it could "be the work of a state-sponsored APT [advanced persistent threat] actor based on overlaps with historical campaigns and macros utilized.
These efforts are often enabled through common tactics like spear phishing, password spraying, and credential stuffing," said CISA Director Christopher C. Complicating matters is the state of US infrastructure. We know about the potholes and crumbling bridges, but what about the gadgets and software powering critical systems? Moreover, the military is still scrambling to assemble and staff up new cyber and electronic warfare units. As of March , the th had filled only 30 of authorized positions for fiscal year ; ICEWS had filled of positions, in part because the Army is having trouble convincing possible recruits to work for the military instead of taking cushy Silicon Valley positions.
The Army will also need to staff new Electronic Warfare Companies and platoons scheduled to go into service between and This was metaphorical, but we could find ourselves in actual darkness in the event of a major cyber offensive. Who would be in charge?
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How long would we have until society collapsed? The news was grim.
The council—made up of senior executives from industry and state and local government who own and operate critical infrastructure— determined that our current plan is the bureaucratic equivalent of the shrug emoji. Emergency personnel have plans in place for natural disasters such as hurricanes, blizzards, and earthquakes, "but how emergency authorities would be implemented for cyber-physical events and larger-scale disasters is less clear," the report said.
There's also a "lack of understanding" about how critical services fit together. Without working water or wastewater systems, hospitals are unable to function.
There may even be a lack of understanding of which hospitals are the most critical to prioritize for restoration. A cyber attack that resulted in a widespread blackout is the worst-case scenario and would likely be considered an act of war by the United States, which would respond in kind. So it's not surprising that North Korea or Russia go right up to the line but have yet to cross it.
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They provoke and intimidate our citizens and enterprises without fear of legal or military consequences. Attribution for the Sony hack was somewhat obvious; it came in response to The Interview , a Sony Pictures movie that depicted a mission to assassinate Kim Jong Un. The US responded with sanctions. For WannaCry , which infected hundreds of thousands of PCs around the globe, it was "hard to find that smoking gun," former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said at the time.
But US investigators say WannaCry used cyber tools and techniques that North Korean hackers have used in the past, usually through "intermediaries. The charges are largely performative, however, as the man lives in North Korea and won't be extradited.
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Financial organizations are a top target of ransomware campaigns; of those networks hit by ransomware file encryption in North America between January and June , 38 percent were in the finance and insurance sector, followed by education at 37 percent, according to security firm Vectra. Government systems were third at 9 percent; NotPetya ransomware, for example, is thought to be the work of Russia, which wanted to disrupt Ukrainian industries and government sectors but eventually hit industries around the world, resulting in US sanctions. Advanced AI and machine learning are needed to help analysts keep pace with the speed of attacks, allowing quick threat identification and reaction.
That's the dream, but it helps if you don't let powerful cyber weapons fall into the hands of those who would use them against you—like the NSA tools that were dumped online a few years ago by a hacking group known as the Shadow Brokers, one of which hastened the spread of WannaCry.
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Today, it's a midsize US city locked out of its computer systems; tomorrow, it could be drained bank accounts, self-driving cars and assembly lines that go haywire , point-of-sale systems that can't process payments , and dwindling supplies of food and water. And for all the help AI can provide in detecting cyber attacks, it can also be used to take a hack to the next level. As the World Economic Forum warned in June, AI-enhanced malware could "learn the nuances of an individual's behavior and language by analyzing email and social media communications.
With AI , attacks will be faster, more targeted, and harder to detect. On the world stage, "interactions between multiple advanced AI systems could lead to unexpected outcomes that increase the risk of economic miscalculation or battlefield surprise," according to former DNI Coats. The big question: Is the US willing to attack first?
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