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.”

But doing systematic, long-term damage to a network is much harder than compromising a vulnerability. And even if such damage were possible, what would be the point?

The Japanese were able to severely damage the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor because so many resources were vulnerable at one time and place, and could be put out of action with one blow. But even then, our aircraft carriers escaped and, as it turned out, came to be the dominant military factor in the Pacific war.

Networks are even more complex than a fleet. Being able to exploit a vulnerability does not mean being able to exploit all vulnerabilities, or every instance of the same vulnerability. And even if networks are interconnected, they are not a homogenous whole. If network administrators have difficulty managing their own large networks because they are too large, flexible and changeable to accurately inventory and map, imagine the difficulty for a malicious outsider in bringing one down.

Of course, elements of it can be interfered with, damaged or even destroyed. But networks are typically too fragmented and redundant to stand or fall as one. Our networks have never been reliable enough to depend upon completely, so they are full of backups, workarounds and overrides that ensure that much of the work gets done even when the parts fail.

And it is important to remember that Pearl Harbor was not an end in itself. Japan gained little or nothing from destroying the fleet in Hawaii. The value of the attack was in the Imperial Navy’s ability to follow it up with attacks in Guam, the Philippines and other locations that enabled them to take and hold strategic military positions.

What good would it do for an attacker to take down vital U.S. networks? While the damage to this country could be great, the benefit to an attacker would be nil if it could not be followed up. The real threat of cyber warfare is not in stand-alone attacks, but in attacks coordinated with military action. At this point, there are very few parties out there with both the ability and inclination to take on the United States militarily, whether our networks are up or down. Terrorists could score points with a devastating cyber attack, of course, but without the ability to follow it up militarily, it would not rise to the level of a Pearl Harbor.

This is not to say that cyber attacks are not a serious concern, that our systems are not vulnerable, or that we do not need to pay attention to the growing threats posed by cyber intrusion. But we should address the issues realistically and understand the scope of the problem.



About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Dec 8, 2009 Proteus USA

Gradual infrastructure degradation is a legitimate long-term strategic goal. We are in a "cosmic war," or two, are we not? The adversaries' goals may be viewed in terms of a physical invasion, but rather a sort of economic and even doctrinal colonization.

Mon, Dec 7, 2009 Andy Blumenthal

Let’s Not Understate the Cyber Threat Wow. I read with some surprise and consternation an article in Government Computer News, 4 December 2009. In this article, the author portrays the fears of a “digital Pearl Harbor” or overwhelming cyber attack on the United States as overblown—almost as if it’s of no real significant possibility or impact. In short, the article states: “What good would it do an attacker to take down the vital U.S. networks?” While the damage to this country could be great, the benefit to an attack would be nil if it could not be followed up. The real threat of cyber warfare is not in stand-alone attacks, but in attacks coordinated with military action.” While, I agree that a coordinated attack is obviously more dangerous than a cyber attack alone, the threat and potential damage of a cyber attack could potentially be devastating—with or without military action. Let’s think for a second about how the military traditionally projects force around the world through conventional warfare—taking control of the air, land, and sea. Control the sea-lanes and you have power over 90%+ of international commerce. Control the land and you have power over people’s daily lives—including their ability to satisfy even basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter, their personal safety, and even their ability to govern themselves. Control the air and you control freedom of movement on the ground, people’s basic comings and goings. Traditional military power can affect just about every facet of people’s lives including ultimately the taking of life itself i.e. paying “the ultimate price.” Now think for a second, about what a massive cyber attack could potentially do to us. At this stage in history, we have to ask ourselves not what elements could be affected by cyber attack, but what elements of our lives would not be impacted? This is the case since virtually our entire civil and elements of the military infrastructure are dependent on the Internet and the computers that are connected to them. If you “pull the plug” or corrupt the interconnected systems, “watch out” seems apropos. The same areas that are vulnerable to traditional military attack are threatened by cyber attack: Commerce, Energy, Transportation, Finance, Health, Agriculture, (Defense)…are all deeply interwoven and dependent on our interconnected computer systems—and this is the case more and more. Think e-Commerce, online banking and finance, manufacturing production systems, transportation Systems, food production and safety, the energy grid, electronic health records, C4ISR, and so on. While thank G-d, we have been spared a really devastating attack to date (if you exclude the massive data compromised/stolen in recent cyber attacks), we would be derelict in responsibilities for ensuring safety and security if we thought that was it. Please the rest of this response, at the following link:

Mon, Dec 7, 2009 Al Leon Sr. Grass Valley CA

Today is a day toremember, but our Newa Media isn't! Why!!!!!!

Mon, Dec 7, 2009

An attack that causes a surge of electrical power could have devastating effect by burning out transformers, circuit boards, etc. In our city withy population of approximately 800 K we had a power loss for only about five hours. However, traffic lights were out and caused congestion. No one could refuel because pumps did not work. Emergency communications, radio, and TV failed. Groceries closed because there was inadequate outside light to see. Etc etc etc

Mon, Dec 7, 2009 Wes

I am always glad when someone writes about the danger of cyberattacks, but in this case I have to take issue with the conclusion. The comparison to Pearl Harbor is faulty because the Japanese knew that they would be identified and HAD to follow up with military attacks to gain benefit. A cyberattack has the benefit of anonymity. Someone with the ability to inflict mass damage in computer systems also has the ability to cover their tracks, or (even worse) direct blame on an innocent party. Furthermore, the conclusion that the benefit is “nil” to a stand-alone attack is also faulty. To say that terrorists would not gain from taking out the power grid and then not following it up militarily, is like saying 9-11 was not a big deal because it was not followed by an invasion.

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