The real threat: China, Iran or our own weaknesses?

James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently warned lawmakers that if they do not establish baseline requirements for the protection of the nation’s critical infrastructure, a damaging cyberattack against that infrastructure is inevitable.

The threat comes from a growing number of international sources, both nation-states and non-national actors, who have been or are developing the capability and motivation to disrupt the American homeland. But one analyst says an attack might not be imminent and that we should use the time before us to establish a foundation of good security.

We have been talking a digital Pearl Harbor since the mid-1990s, said John Bumgarner, chief technology officer of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, a privately funded think tank that studies the real-world possibilities and consequences of cyberattacks. “It’s 17 years later, and it still hasn’t happened yet,” he said.

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Why not? “It’s not that easy” to carry out a digital attack that does significant physical damage, he said. Those who have the ability to do so know better than to try it, especially since the U.S. military has declared that it is prepared to respond with conventional weapons to a serious cyberattack. “It’s not in their interest today to carry out such an attack,” Bumgarner said.

That does not mean that the security of critical infrastructure is unimportant. Bumgarner said he does not believe legislative mandates are an effective way to achieve it, however. Baseline security requirements have a way of becoming the maximum effort that an entity will make. The baseline becomes a compliance checklist and inevitably leaves critical holes in defenses.

“Somebody needs to step back and do the fundamentals first,” he said.

The fundamentals include a continuous life-cycle management of the security of critical systems, beginning with their design and development, and including a thorough understanding of the environments in which they operate, with continuous monitoring and maintenance of their status.

The United States is worried about its critical infrastructure, but to date, Bumgarner said, the country has not done an evaluation of the systems performing essential services to determine the impact of disruptions and identify those that really are critical. This is necessary before systems can be effectively secured using risk management.

“All critical infrastructures are not created equal,” he said. “It all depends on what they are serving."

That it is possible to disrupt, damage or destroy physical infrastructure by digital attack through control systems has been demonstrated both in experiments and in the real world with the Stuxnet attack on Iranian facilities.

But possible does not mean easy, Bumgarner said. It requires more than sophisticated cyber war capabilities to achieve it. It requires detailed knowledge of the system being attacked, its hardware and software components, how they interact with each other, and what the impact of their disruption would be.

Even given the technical and intelligence capability to carry out such an attack, nations are reluctant to carry it out. Even an apparent rogue state such as Iran will eventually act in its own interest, Bumgarner said.

“We’re boxing Iran in,” he said. There has been adequate provocation for them to carry out an attack. “If they were irresponsible, they would already have launched it.”

That such an attack has not happened yet does not mean it cannot happen, today or tomorrow or sometime in the not-too-distant future. But whatever the level of current risk, it is important that the U.S. use the time available to prepare and defend its systems. The government has a legitimate interest in ensuring that this happens and providing assistance where needed, and this inevitably will involve legislation and mandated standards of security.

It is important that these mandates go beyond checklist baselines of security controls, however, and embrace a comprehensive life-cycle approach for the critical infrastructure that will enable effective security based on risk management.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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