Monday, July 6, 2015

"Cyber Wars"

                        Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Cyber Wars”
July 6, 2015

The beheadings of Christians on a Tunisian beach, or the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot are more vivid than the hacking of computer files in Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, the latter is far more dangerous. Violence, such as 9/11, stirs our emotions and rallies us around our respective flags. The fear engendered in such attacks, loss of life and physical damage can inhibit freedoms to assemble and speak out. However, as a nation the harm is principally to our pride. Cyber war, on the other hand, can have devastating and lasting effects. Cyber-terrorism can sabotage critical military installations, destroy financial institutions, impair transportation facilities and create blackouts along the power-grid – all without any visible signs of destruction. Cyber-espionage can lead to I.D. theft, extortion and blackmail. The enemy can learn of secret military plans and programs. Our enemies can more easily insert spies into the highest levels of government.

Countries operate in self-interest, which means they look to assume a competitive edge. As long as we have computers, hackers will be employed – ours and others. We had better get used to such attempts, as they aren’t going away. The successful country will be the one that employs the best technologies – builds defenses that resist the attempts of others and creates internal systems that are resistant to intrusion. The constant improvement of anti-virus systems is a necessity. No system is impregnable. Every computer system is vulnerable. To avoid such attacks requires staying one step ahead. Anticipation, not reaction, is vital. It is more a question of a good defense than a clever offense. It is costly and the process is without end, but it must be done.

It is not just the stealing of private information that should concern us; it is the ability of malicious software (malware) to insert “viruses,” “worms” and “Trojan horses.” Not only can such programs render useless a company or government’s computers, they can replicate networks; they can collect data and transmit it – reconfigured – back to the creator. Semantic attacks can manipulate existing protocols within a network, so as to disseminate misinformation as though it were correct.

In early June it was reported that the personnel and security clearance files on government employees, which are housed at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), had been hacked. It took two months for the OPM to make public the hacking. When they initially acknowledged the incident, the claim was that four million files had been compromised. By the end of the month, the number had risen to thirty-two million.

There had been warnings. Hackers had stolen credit card numbers and other information from several businesses. They had taken personal information from 83 million J.P. Morgan Chase clients; they had absconded with payment card information from 56 million Home Depot customers. They had stolen records of 110 million Target customers and had nabbed personal information from 80 million accounts belonging to Anthem. The defection two years ago of Edward Snowden to Russia demonstrated that files at the NSA could be swiped. The Washington Times reported last week that cyber-espionage by China and Russia (as well as by us and our allies) has been going on for over twenty years. In March 1998, in a series of events code-named “Moonlight Maze,” Russian hackers penetrated the systems at the Pentagon, NASA and the Energy Department. “Titan Rain” was the code name given to Chinese cyber attacks in 2003. In 2012, it was reported (unconfirmed) that Chinese hackers had gained access to White House systems that communicate with the military. Russian cyber spies penetrated White House unclassified files between October 2014 and March of this year. The security clearance systems employed by the OPM are the same as those that vetted Major Nidal Hasan, Edward Snowden and Aaron Alexis, the man who shot and killed twelve people at the Washington Shipyard in September, 2013. And a report issued last November by the Inspector General (IG) for the OPM described that agency’s security system as “a Chinese hacker’s dream.”

The invasion of the OPM’s security files not only exposed those whose records were compromised, it placed at risk the nation. Classified and personal information in the wrong hands can result in extortion, meaning that federal workers can be blackmailed into turning against their country. Yet, at a Congressional hearing, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta, when asked who was responsible, answered: “I don’t believe anyone is personally responsible.” The woman should be fired, if not for incompetence, then for failing to understand her obligations. Cyber security at every level, but especially when involving government security and employees is a deadly serious matter. Such breaches deserve broad attention from the Press.

Unfortunately, the shedding of responsibility has become a hallmark of this Administration: think of the ATF scandal, the IRS, Veterans Administration and Benghazi. To the extent that cyber warfare involves national security, these breaches take a lack of accountability to new levels. They are signs of dishonesty and cowardice, and should not be tolerated.

Our enemies have an interest in eviscerating those aspects of our society that allow us to be free. A democracy that permits the people to choose their representatives is a threat to authoritarian regimes like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. Our civil, religious and women’s rights imperil the leaders of ISIS, al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists. Our freedoms menace leaders of all nations who keep their citizens clothed in ignorance. Leaders of such countries enjoy living standards that dwarf any sense of inequality in the West. Such men and women are dependent on an uneducated, unenlightened and unquestioning constituency. The motto of a tyrant is the polar opposite of that of Sy Syms. We have enemies who will employ all means to destroy the concept of a free and representative government. They will do their best to make us appear weak, inefficient and ineffectual. They will use propaganda, threats of terrorism, intimidation and cyber war to cause us to question our history, exceptionalism and even one another.

In the history of nations, cyber warfare technologies are new, but the concept behind them is as old as are countries. The purpose is to destroy a way of life. The advantage our enemies have is that concerns for privacy and human rights do not bother them. Their governments are controlled by a minority. Even in China, the Communist Party represents less than ten percent of their citizens. Americans are rightly concerned of intrusive government; but, while we must be mindful of such fears, we cannot allow them to prevent us from combating this new form of warfare.

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