February 23, 2016

Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath

The United States could be a mere few years away from facing a “cyber Pearl Harbor,” said esteemed journalist Ted Koppel during his February 23 visit to Georgetown to promote his new book, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath (2015).

The culmination of exhaustive interviews with officials and experts, Koppel’s book elucidates how hackers or digital terrorists comprise “arguably the greatest existential threat to our way of life.”

While cybersecurity has received some attention in the press and from government figures, Koppel said that the general public remains ignorant of the scale of the danger posed, and that officials need to do more to shore up our nation’s defenses against what could be a catastrophic event. The message from current and former officials, he said, was clear: the exploitation of vulnerabilities in our nation’s electrical grid, for example, could lead to a collapse of the East Coast’s power supply. Faced with weeks, or even months, of darkness and lack of heating, millions of East Coast residents would be forced to flee to inward states. These Midwest states, unprepared to handle the exodus, would buckle under the tides of internally displaced Americans. Unfortunately, Koppel noted, the federal government remains woefully unprepared for such a dire scenario.

Hackers pose a unique threat because they could act undetected and remain so even after the attack. Whereas during the Cold War the Soviets and United States developed mutually assured destruction as a form of deterrence against nuclear war, no such mechanism exists in regards to cybersecurity. Malevolent hackers—including those with official state backing—could commit an attack and, in theory, remain completely anonymous. This means that cyberattacks have a certain asymmetry that can make blame attribution nearly impossible. Even when attribution can be ascertained, this process can take months, as it did in the final confirmation of North Korea’s role in the Sony media hacks.

While state actors like Russia or Iran have less incentive to commit offensive cyberattacks—since the United States also maintains an offensive cyber footing—this isn’t true for non-state actors, like ISIS, who might be cultivating cyberattack capabilities. In Koppel’s opinion, it’s chiefly a matter of if, not when, such an actor will attempt a large-scale attack.

Because our national security architecture is oriented primarily toward more conventional threats, as one former security official told Koppel, we remain preoccupied with non-cyber issues. But if we hope to stave off possible attacks of cataclysmic magnitudes, we must change this orientation entirely and commit more resources to upgrading our infrastructure. And, echoing the “preppers” who Koppel says might show us all to one day be fools, the average American can invest in non-perishable foods and at-home solar technology to hedge against the day that he says is more likely to come than many expect.