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A Call for Action in Addressing Cyber Security

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On Friday, President Obama addressed the nation on the importance of securing cyberspace and the reasons why it could be a danger to both our economy and national security. He also used the term, "weapons of mass disruption" and announced that he will appoint a cyber security czar.

The speech highlighted a 60-day study conducted at his direction, designed to take a look at how vulnerable we are to cyber attacks that could drastically change the whole way we exist.

Is this a far cry from reality? Perhaps not; if you can take command and control of the computer that controls something we use, you can do pretty much anything you want with it. This might be anything from a banking system to the system that controls an electrical grid or a sophisticated weapon. If you really think about, computers control just about everything nowadays.

As I was considering this, it reminded me that there are already millions of computers where some hacker has gained command and control of and formed  into a botnet (essentially a supercomputer). All it took to do this was a little social engineering to trick someone into downloading some malicious code on a machine. While some of us might write this off as stupid people doing stupid things, people have even been tricked into doing this at government agencies and Fortune 500 companies. Trust me, not all the people who fall for some of this stuff are stupid. Social engineering is known to cause people to do things they normally would not!

While it takes a little technical sophistication to write malicious code, a person doesn't necessarily have to be a technical whiz to get their hands on it. They can buy it right on the Internet, complete with a do-it-yourself (DIY) kit to execute their intended misdeed. While most of the "misdeeds" seen in the wild have a financial intent, the intent is dictated by the person committing the act. In other words, the intent might be different depending on the person who is executing the deed.

Also mentioned, both in the report and in the speech, was cyber-warfare. For years now,  the Chinese have been accused of hacking into government systems, although they always deny it. Also mentioned was an actual use of cyber warfare, or the Russian attack on Georgia that happened in the not very distant past.

Please note that botnets, which I mentioned above, were used to cripple the Georgian infrastructure. The zombie computers used in these botnets didn't come out of Russia, either. Some of them were traced right back to this country. In the current environment, you don't need to be in a physical location to take command and control; it might happen from anywhere.

The report also mentions attacking electrical grids and that the CIA has intelligence that this has already occurred in other countries. Just last month, the Wall Street Journal issued an article stating that Russian and Chinese hackers had mapped the U.S. power grid and left behind software that in theory could be used to attack our electrical grid. The article quoted unnamed officials from within the government. This set off a flurry of articles and in the end, most of the experts concluded that the threat, although real, wasn’t as bad as it was hyped up to be. Nonetheless, hacking certain utilities, such as electricity, water, and sewage could cause a lot of serious problems and there is evidence it has been accomplished in other countries.

While cyber warfare is an ominous subject, the report points out that we have already seen some pretty major events when financial systems were successfully attacked. Examples given were the TJX data breach (45 million payment cards compromised) and the more recent WorldPay payment card breach where a 30 minute exploit netted nine million dollars. This highly coordinated scheme took place all over the United States, Montreal, Moscow, and Hong Kong in a very short time-frame.

There is tangible evidence that so much personal and financial information has been stolen that the laws of supply and demand are driving prices down. Interestingly enough, a lot of this information is traded right over the Internet in anonymous forums using hard to trace forms of payment.

About Ed Dickson