Former US Spy Warns on Cybersecurity

Paul Taylor
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A former U.S. intelligence chief says the west has had its "9/11 warning" on cybersecurity and warns that, unless urgent action is taken, the U.S. faces "the cyber equivalent of the World Trade Center attack."

According to John "Mike" McConnell, such an attack would bring the country's banking system, power grid, and other essential infrastructure to its knees.

Sustained cyber attacks targeting the websites of a dozen major US banks including Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, and Bank of America coupled with an earlier attack on Saudi Aramco which erased data on two-thirds of the Saudi oil company's corporate PCs were examples of the growing threat.

Mr. McConnell, who served as director of the National Security Agency under President Clinton and then as director of National Intelligence under George W. Bush and President Obama, believes those corporate attacks should be treated as a further "wake-up call" to politicians and business leaders in the west.

"We have had our 9/11 warning. Are we going to wait for the cyber equivalent of the collapse of the World Trade Centers?" Mr McConnell, now vice-chairman of Booz Allen Hamilton, the consultancy, told the Financial Times.

Iran has been blamed by some for the attacks on major U.S. banks and Aramco. Last month Leon Panetta, US secretary of defense, described the Aramco sabotage as "a significant escalation of the cyber threat" and told business leaders attending a meeting of the Business Executives for National Security that the U.S. is increasingly vulnerable to foreign computer hackers who could dismantle the nation's power grid, transportation system, financial networks and government.

Mr. Panetta warned that result would be like a "cyber-Pearl Harbor" that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life, an attack that would paralyze and shock the nation and create a profound new sense of vulnerability."

Mr. McConnell said such an attack could see a country like Iran work with Russian criminals or Chinese hackers to target banks, the power grid, and all the computers that control routing and ticketing for planes and trains.

"All of a sudden, the power doesn't work, there's no way you can get money, you can't get out of town, you can't get online, and banking, as a function to make the world work, starts to not be reliable," he said. "Now, that is a cyber-Pearl Harbor, and it is achievable."

Mr McConnell said he doubted whether Iran or a terrorist group could undertake such a devastating assault at the moment but added that it is only a matter of time before the sophisticated tools needed fall into the wrong hands.

The former intelligence chief also expressed disappointment that the latest attempt by the US Senate to pass a comprehensive cyber security bill had fallen apart. But, he said, he expects the president to issue an executive order that will, "at least get the government players and agencies working together."