For 75 years miners took canaries to work as early warning systems. Canaries are more sensitive to carbon monoxide and other toxic gases than humans; the illness or death of the “canary in the coal mine” was a sign of grave danger.
The hackers, imitators, and scam artists damaging the Internet, stealing information and shutting down targets are, unintentionally, today’s canaries and the Internet is the coal mine. Every successful attack points out that a much greater danger exists, but the government does not seem to care.
If a rouge 16-year old can wreak havoc on some government database or a criminal in Timbuktu can lock up the records of an entire hospital for ransom, imagine what a well-organized, trained, and equipped state-sponsored cyber enemy could accomplish with a planned and coordinated attack. The Internet is infrastructure and attacks on infrastructure are classic warfare tactics. No matter what you imagined, you’ve probably underestimated the chaos such an attack would cause to our centralized, interconnected, electronic society.
The strengths of information technology and the Internet are also its vulnerabilities. Taking down a cash economy is very difficult, there are many millions of independent transaction points at any time; however, an Internet economy has only a few critical nodes but they can be accessed from many millions of places – take out those few nodes or add a self-reproducing virus to poison them, and the entire system becomes useless.
The weak points – and in some cases, the seeds of destruction – are everywhere including your web-enabled TV, refrigerator, washing machine, cable, phones, security cameras and the like. Many of these devices are easily hacked and hijacked.
This is not merely conjecture, hackers have already captured and used many of these devices together in so-called “denial of service” attacks bombarding their victims off the Internet by overwhelming the system. Your security camera or CD player may have been one of them without your knowledge. The U.S. used a code hidden in industrial controllers to thwart some of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. What’s to prevent someone else from doing that, or worse, to us?
Securing our systems from these threats is a job only Uncle Sam can do through security legislation, but they have not gotten serious about it so far. It’s going to be too late after the system crashes, we need to start now. Many virtual canaries have shown us the vulnerability, when will we heed those warnings?
COMMENTARY: Gideon at 60; A right to a lawyer
Gregory LaForge writes about the andmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.