Science Fiction Come True: Weaponized Technology Threatens to Shatter Security, Critical Systems

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Steve Durbin

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By 2020, the very foundations of today’s digital world will shake. Nation states and terrorist groups will increasingly weaponize the cyber domain, launching attacks on critical national infrastructure that cause widespread destruction and chaos. With power, communications and logistics systems down, organizations will lose the basic building blocks needed for doing business. Heating, air conditioning, lighting, transport, information, communication and a safe working environment will no longer be taken for granted.

Let’s take a quick look at a few of the top threats to information security that are expected to emerge over the next two years, as determined by Information Security Forum research, and what they mean for your organization:

Cyber and Physical Attacks Combine to Shatter Business Resilience

Nation states and terrorists will combine traditional military force with their increasingly sophisticated cyber arsenals to launch attacks that create maximum impact. Organizations will face interruptions to business as cities become no-go zones and vital services are rendered unavailable, with governments, militaries and emergency services struggling to respond effectively to concurrent physical and cyber incidents.

Why Does This Threat Matter?

Physical and cyber attacks will be deployed simultaneously, creating unprecedented damage. Many nation states and terrorist groups (or both, working together) will have the capability to bring together the full force of their armaments – both traditional and digital – to perform a clustered ‘hybrid’ attack. The outcome, if successful, would be damage on a vast scale.

Telecommunication services and internet connections will be obvious first targets, leaving individuals and organizations cut off from the outside world. Assistance from emergency response services, as well as local and central governments, will be slow or non-existent as essential physical and digital infrastructure will have broken down.

These attacks will be designed to spread maximum chaos, fear and confusion. The stricken city, or cities, will be brought to a standstill, with both lives and businesses placed in jeopardy. Those at home will be unable and unwilling to go to work, or – without power or communications – unable to work from home. Those already in the office will be trapped with nowhere to escape to, as attacks hit them from every angle. Existing business continuity plans will be useless; they will not have been prepared to cater for an eventuality when every system is down while individuals are in physical danger. People will panic. Work will be off the agenda.

Satellites Cause Chaos on the Ground

As an integral part of almost every walk of life, satellite systems will be targeted. Organizations are more reliant on satellites than ever before, routinely using global positioning systems (GPS) and communications services. Disabling or spoofing signals from GPS will put lives at risk and impact global travel and financial markets. Attackers may also target media, communications, meteorological and military functions to further disrupt operations and trade.

Why Does This Threat Matter?

Compromised satellite signals, whether spoofed by malicious adversaries or knocked out by collisions with other satellites or space debris, will cause widespread chaos down on Earth. As satellites become cheaper and easier for national space agencies and individual businesses to launch and maintain, they will become increasingly integral to modern life. Disabled or spoofed signals will interfere with critical transport, communications systems and even financial services.

Lives will be put at risk and supply chains hampered as spoofed GPS signals are sent to aircraft, ships and road vehicles. International financial systems – from stock exchanges to ATMs – that rely on exact timestamps on digital payments will be unable to record transactions accurately. Trading algorithms that rely on data from satellites on weather or location of specific assets (e.g. to instruct which crops to buy or sell) will be misled, potentially manipulating financial markets.

In the next few years, satellites will play an increasingly crucial role in connecting Earth-based infrastructure and systems. However, organizations will need to realize what the military has known for years – that no one will be spared if attacks against satellites succeed. The potential for crippling disruption is immense.

Weaponized Appliances Leave Organizations Powerless

Enemies aiming to inflict damage will take advantage of vulnerabilities in connected appliances such as thermostats, refrigerators, dishwashers and kettles to create power surges strong enough to knock out regional power grids. This relatively unsophisticated attack will bring operations to a grinding halt for organizations in affected areas, as governments prioritize restoring vital services over trade.

Why Does This Threat Matter?

Attackers will find ways to access a huge proportion of the millions of connected appliances – such as heating systems and ovens – and turn them into weapons. This mass of appliances could be commandeered and misused for a number of disruptive ends, similarly to the way botnets of poorly protected home computers have been used to initiate and sustain large scale DDoS attacks. However, one threat merits specific attention – the damage they can wreak collectively on power grids.

These appliances, forming part of the IoT – many in homes but also found in offices and factories – are always powered-on and always connected to the internet. Manipulated by attackers to switch on to full power simultaneously, appliances will create a demand for power so unexpectedly high that it overloads and brings down regional electricity grids. With the grid offline or severely degraded, organizations will be weakened and struggle to function.

The underlying foundations of many business continuity plans, such as instructing employees to work from home, will be rendered useless as they will have neither power nor a means to communicate. Dependent critical services such as water supplies, food production systems and health care will be unavailable. Power rationing will affect other utilities and services, such as heating, lighting and transport. To cap it all, organizations will lose out to competitors in non-affected areas who will be quick to take advantage of the increased demand for their services.

It's Past Time to Begin Preparation

Information security professionals are facing increasingly complex threats—some new, others familiar but evolving. Their primary challenge remains unchanged; to help their organizations navigate mazes of uncertainty where, at any moment, they could turn a corner and encounter information security threats that inflict severe business impact.

In the face of mounting global threats, organization must make methodical and extensive commitments to ensure that practical plans are in place to adapt to major changes in the near future. Employees at all levels of the organization will need to be involved, from board members to managers in non-technical roles.

The themes listed above could impact businesses operating in cyberspace at break-neck speeds, particularly as the use of the Internet and connected devices spreads. Many organizations will struggle to cope as the pace of change intensifies. These threats should stay on the radar of every organization, both small and large, even if they seem distant.

The future arrives suddenly, especially when you aren’t prepared.

About the author: Steve Durbin is Managing Director of the Information Security Forum (ISF). His main areas of focus include strategy, information technology, cyber security and the emerging security threat landscape across both the corporate and personal environments. Previously, he was senior vice president at Gartner.

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