Picture walking into your small business on a Monday and turning on your computer only to receive an error message, “Debug malware error 666-system 13.exe failure”. You try “control-alt-delete”, powering down and re-booting and even the Lord’s Prayer but all to no avail. And then you discover that the problem is afflicting all of your business computers and servers and has crashed your website as well.
Fortunately your smartphone isn’t yet afflicted and you get your computer consultant on the line. She tells you that the virus has inflicted damage across a large swath of U.S. businesses and elsewhere around the globe. The tech companies believe it may have been caused by a malicious hack and are working on patches to fix the problem. Nobody knows for sure yet who the perpetrators are, but she says international terrorist organizations may be involved.
After a week of intense efforts by your consultant, the computers are back to normal and your website is back online. Unfortunately the line at the bottom of your Profit & Loss statement will be anything but normal for that month between your consultant’s fees and loss of worker productivity and Ecommerce sales. And the ultimate source of the malware afflicting the nation has also been discovered: the U.S. Department of Defense.
Before we’re accused of engaging in some anti-governmental screed here, the above hypothetical is actually a concern within the government itself. The use of the Internet and social media by terrorist organizations, as well as cyber warfare buy foreign governments, has led to calls for a more robust cyber warfare program by the DOD. If the challenges to traditional “boots on the ground” military operations against terrorist organizations seem problematic, they pale in comparison to the unchartered territory of cyber warfare.
Consider this simple example. When a missile is aimed at a target, the extent of damage both intended and collateral is at least quantifiable. Even in the tragic worst-case scenario of civilian populations being injured, the blast zone is measurably finite. However, intelligence analysts warn that the use of even a targeted cyber weapon could result in unintended consequences that ripple across the web.
What if as a cover a terrorist organization routs its online operations through a civilian power grid system and a U.S. cyber attack slows that system and it crashes? Or getting closer to home, that a terrorist organization booby-traps its systems so that an attack is boomeranged into a U.S. system that they’ve discovered a vulnerability in? Say a network of hospitals? “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar” author and respected Washington think tanker Peter Singer has said, “This is a new realm of war” and warned that although the U.S. will improve its capabilities, they will never be 100 percent.
Its likely that as terrorist organizations continue to use the Internet for propaganda and recruitment purposes, and as foreign governments step up cyber warfare efforts, that calls for a more robust U.S. cyber warfare deployment will grow louder. And the foregoing discussion does not even touch upon the current call for the legal ability of private actors (e.g., corporations) to use countermeasures in their systems against cyber attacks. In plain English, that when a company’s network is cyber attacked it could for example deploy a counterattack that would disable the attacker’s system. Which of course presupposes that the attacker’s system is properly identified.
What do these potentially chaotic scenarios mean for your small business? At a minimum, that an assumption that there’s no reason for anybody to attack your systems is beside the point in an interconnected cyber world. More concretely, that your business needs to be ever vigilant to ensure against vulnerabilities that could be exposed by the unintended consequences of cyber warfare undertaken by governmental or private actors. To proceed otherwise, risks your bottom line becoming collateral damage.
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