Republicans and Democrats have expended a great deal of effort attempting to cast the other party as the beneficiary of confirmed efforts by Russians to affect the outcome of our most recent presidential election. Perhaps it would be a better use of energy for both left- and right-leaning individuals to drive awareness of the fact that, beyond just elections, the United States is currently being victimized by Russian hackers in a multitude of ways.
Our federal government’s most basic purpose is to protect the people and the critical functions of our infrastructure systems. It has seen well over one hundred known breaches of the computer networks that serve as the brain for much of what helps America run from day to day.
Imagine our water being poisoned, and the systems monitoring it being compromised to give inaccurate readings on safety tests. Or imagine a breach of our missile defense systems initiating World War 3!
To fully understand just how devastating the effects of these hacks can potentially be, we need to examine the methods and infections used to carry out these breeches, as well as the specific parts of our infrastructure that can be targeted.
Virtually all critical systems vital to our infrastructure use some version of an Industrial Control System (ICS). An ICS controls the command functions and power distribution vital to chemical plants, natural gas pipelines, dams, railroad switches, nuclear power facilities, and water treatment plants like the one recently hacked in Illinois. The software controlling these systems can be hacked by a worm. A computer worm is a standalone malware computer program that replicates itself in order to spread to other computers. An infamous worm called Stuxnet is part of a list of major threats to industrial controls.
In addition to the role they play in infrastructure, ICSs are also vital to the military application of missile systems, and variants are manufactured by defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
In our highly competitive global economy, it is important to consider the consequences of failing to protect the networks vital to our manufacturing sector as well. Another possible method of infiltration for hackers would be via a programmable logic controller (PLC), or programmable controller. A PLC is an industrial quality digital computer which has been adapted for the control of manufacturing processes including assembly lines, robotic devices, or any activity that requires high reliability control and ease of programming.
PLCs can be infected when connected to an external computer for the installation of the controlling software or hardware. This can possibly occur via infection from a rootkit. A rootkit is a collection of malicious software designed to enable access to a computer or areas of its software that is not otherwise allowed. It then masks its existence or the existence of other software programs by manipulating administrative level software functions. Hackers can then maliciously sabotage or disrupt the function of the corresponding hardware or system.
There is currently no governmental oversight committee or task force in power determining whether or not the cybersecurity readiness of our critical systems is adequate.
Therefore, to better deal with known and emerging cybersecurity threats, we should consider the implementation of a single federal agency to be responsible for cybersecurity preparedness, response, and recovery across the entire electric power sector and other critical parts of our infrastructure. This type of new bureaucratic arm can potentially take years to implement.
The international attacks currently victimizing Americans show no sign of slowing down amid talks of additional sanctions against Russia for its alleged role in assassinations carried out internationally as well as their election meddling. The time has come for a more proactive response from Washington before a major catastrophic event materializes.