The Guest Blog

Alic: Preventing a ‘Digital Pearl Harbor’

Jen Alic |

As the Obama Administration attempts to push the passage of some heavy-handed cyber security billsthat would further chip away at privacy, officials are painting a very bleak picture of America’s vulnerability to a “Digital Pearl Harbor”.

Nick Rowe | Photodisc | Getty Images

Media reports note that “foreign spies and organized criminal are inside virtually every U.S. company’s network”, and that “our infrastructure is being colonized”.

The logic of the bills, six in total, is to enforce cooperation from companies and private individuals, particularly those operating power plants, chemical facilities, and communications systems in the name of national security.

The Cyber Intelligence Sharing Protection Act, for instance, would provide information-sharing tax incentives for corporations that control critical infrastructure (with a clause to protect non-crucial personal data). A rival bill proposes the same, without the incentives package.

Civil liberties groups are highly critical of the bills because of the implications for privacy. The Intelligence Community has also been critical. They say they are irrelevant: they can’t govern cyberspace and simultaneously protect rights.

At a recent cybersecurity conference, the White House’s cyber czar, Howard Schmidt, lobbied for the bills, stressing that there has been a clear escalation of cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, with around 200 attempts in 2011 – five times the amount in 2010.

So who are the real enemies?

There are hackers and there are hacktivists, and it is an important distinction, even if the government does not think so.

The biggest name in “hacktivism” today is Anonymous, which has attacked censorship proponents, Wikileaks’ enemies, the Church of Scientology, and the Bank of America , and also dabbled in Middle East rebellions.

The NSA has in recent weeks spread fears that Anonymous could force a “limited blackout” on critical energy infrastructure, but Anonymous says this would fly in the face of their principles, affecting the “little people”.

Is Anonymous a threat to US national security? Not in the way that the NSA would have us believe. They will not target US energy infrastructure. It is not in their interest, nor does it jive with their overall objectives, which focus on freedom of information. What they can do is make the US Intelligence Community look ill-prepared. (In July last year, the group attacked government contractor Booz Allen Hamiltonand a cache of 90,000 military emails and passwords causing a significant security problem for the Department of Defense.)

The real cyber threats to US energy infrastructure are China and Russia, who are believed to be developing cyber warfare methods capable of dealing a major blow to critical infrastructure.

Experts estimate that the number of engineers in the US is equivalent to the number of “cyber jedis” in China, and that they have immense capabilities.

Former Department of Homeland Security deputy secretary Paul Rosenzweig equates the mapping of critical energy and water infrastructure to “preparation of the battlefield”. China, he opines, could easily warn the US not to interfere in Taiwan by threatening to “take out the electricity supply in Los Angeles.”

The real cyber threats to US energy infrastructure are China and Russia, who are believed to be developing cyber warfare methods capable of dealing a major blow to critical infrastructure.
Jen Alic

Russia and China have already “done the reconnaissance necessary to plan to attack US critical infrastructure," Jim Lewis, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told reporters, adding that the US is “completely vulnerable”.

Time to Choose: Privacy or Security

As the House considers new cyber security laws, it is clear that the debate must be reframed. There is a price to pay for the luxuries of the cyber world – a trade-off for being connected to everyone and everything. It is no longer possible to frame this debate along distinctly privacy-versus-security lines. We gave up our privacy and opened a Pandora’s Box of security threats when we embraced the cyber world of instant gratification, human connection and convenience.

In an escalating cyber war theater, businesses lose out to security breaches; hackers pose a greater threat to personal privacy than the FBI, CIA and NSA; and the Intelligence Community continues to lose the competitive advantage. The situation is untenable, and rival objectives will make it very difficult to prepare for a new level of cyber attacks.

More than anything, it is the public that needs to rethink things. It must decide now how much it is willing to risk and what manner of risk they are willing to accept in return for harnessing the power of the cyber world. Privacy may be a thing of the past, unless you forge it in your own terms and mold it to your own desires. If the public cannot come to terms with security-versus-privacy issues, it always has the freedom of choice to disengage.

Outside the cyber world, privacy still exists. It’s a choice.

This article by Jen Alic is cross posted with is the leading energy news site online. We provide daily news updates and detailed articles on crude oil, natural gas and all alternative energy sectors from solar to geothermal. For those of you interested in the financial side we have the latest oil prices with detailed charting options. Let us help you stay on top of all happenings in the energy sector.