Defence: The reality of cyber-attacks

Information technology is used in all parts of our daily lives (photo:dpa)
Information technology is used in all parts of our daily lives (photo:dpa)

Cyber attacks pose a real and major threat to society and the public appear to be unaware of the significance. This GIS briefing gives an introduction to a two-part series on the reality of cyber-crime and the danger it poses to the infrastructure providing us with our vital supplies.

THE threat of cyber-attacks is no longer some idea from science fiction – it is real. But public awareness has not kept pace with the new threat and vulnerability in cyberspace.

The United States has designated October, 2011, as National Cyber Security Awareness month across the country to highlight the threat

This can affect all sectors of private and public life, national and international business and defence policies of countries and multinational organisations like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

It highlights the security implications of our increasing dependency on the spread of information technology in all areas of our daily lives. The United States has designated October, 2011, as National Cyber Security Awareness month across the country to highlight the threat.

Almost every Western government has been infiltrated by cyber-attacks.

Hacking attack

Russian hackers reportedly even penetrated a nuclear power plant near St Petersburg as long ago as May, 2008. The intrusion did not affect the plant’s operation and the website was taken offline, but rumours were spread – possibly deliberately – of radioactive emissions from the plant.

Attackers struck the European CO2 emission rights market in early 2011, demonstrating the potential cyber-attacks can have on manipulating market prices.

And the European Carbon Market was suspended after 475,000 carbon credits were stolen in a hacking attack on the Czech carbon register. It forced other platforms such as the France Bluenext exchange to close, while Austria, Poland, Estonia and Greece also shut their registries for trade.

Losses were estimated at more than 5billion euros, but the perceived loss of credibility in carbon trading was an even greater setback. Total losses in the West due to cyber-crime and cyber-espionage continue to outpace, at a staggering rate, the technical efforts and newly-established laws and rules to prevent it.

Stock Exchange breached

Even the Nasdaq Stock Exchange in New York was breached by a cyber-attack in February, 2011, but it did not penetrate the system which handles trades. It does, however, highlight how vulnerable to attack computerised stock exchanges around the world are.

These threats are challenging the traditional assumptions and thinking of national and collective security and defence.

Russia and China have been identified as being heavily engaged in cyber-warfare and cyber-espionage.

The so-called ‘GhostNet-system’, used by the Chinese and discovered in 2009, not only searched computers for information and tapped emails but also turned them into giant listening devices

An automated cyber-spying system, run from servers in China, accessed 1,300 computers in 103 countries including government departments, embassies, international organisations, NGOs and news media. The so-called ‘GhostNet-system’, used by the Chinese and discovered in 2009, not only searched computers for information and tapped emails but also turned them into giant listening devices.

Cyber-warfare

The US government under President Barack Obama has announced a US$17billion digital defensive programme to combat cyber-warfare and created a US Cyber Command under a four-star general.

The threat is so great it threatens the critical infrastructure providing electricity, water and communications across the globe on which populations depend.

Critical infrastructure includes installations and networks in the energy sector but especially installations producing electricity, oil and natural gas, storage and refineries, liquefied natural gas terminals, transport and distribution systems.

The integration and synchronisation of energy supply systems across countries and connecting individual European countries into a common, liberalised market, makes them more linked and dependent on each other’s resilience

The integration and synchronisation of energy supply systems across countries and connecting individual European countries into a common, liberalised market, makes them more linked and dependent on each other’s resilience.

Read the first of a two-part series on the threat of cyber-attacks and what must be done to protect our critical infrastructure by Dr Frank Umbach on Thursday, October 13.

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