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With global tensions high on nuclear war, it’s easy to forget about the dangers of a cyber attack. Most recently, when President Trump and Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un held their summit in Singapore, some of those fears subsided. Lurking in the background is still the large threat of crippling cyber warfare waged by rogue groups and nations. In 2010, the well published Stuxnet attack was unleashed on Iranian industrial systems. This attack could have easily crippled their national infrastructure further if the architects so wished. Atop the Stuxnet attack, in 2015 the Ukraine’s national power grid was attacked by targeted infrastructure hacking. This was similar to the Stuxnet attack on Iran. This attack was the first successful penetration, and shutdown of an electrical grid in history. Pretty terrifying, right?

What About Us?

If a nightmare scenario happened to the United States, crippling our cities would not be complicated. More than likely, attackers would replicate the same methods used in both the Stuxnet and 2015 Ukraine grid attacks.

Most importantly, the United States electrical grid is of immediate concern. Taking control of infrastructure via targeted malware, or spear-phishing attacks can give hackers direct access to the grid. Most recently in 2018, it was publicized by DHS that they had recognized meddling with the US electrical grid by hackers. Even though no attacks were carried out, this is particularly concerning given that the accessibility is already present. If an adversary were to begin attacking the US, shutting down the grid would likely be step one.

Electric Cyber Attack

Losing electricity on a large scale would render most every day services pretty useless. Lighting, traffic control, internet, shopping, and many other “normal” things we are used to would be unavailable. This alone is enough for panic to ensue in cities and small towns. Generators would be used as needed, but fuel would be re-prioritized for assets on the US Critical Infrastructure list such as hospitals, banks, and government institutions.

If the attack consisted of meddling with power feeds, power could be restored eventually as was the case in the Ukraine. However, the more severe option for adversaries would be to damage the US grid permanently. This would be via overloading substations and power delivery systems, resulting in violent explosions and fires to the infrastructure. Disabling power control systems by damaging the IT infrastructure of power companies would also be nearly irreversible. One could imagine the unrest associated with this, especially in the long term.

Telecommunications Cyber Attack

Telecommunications would likely be step two of an adversarial attack if the result was to ultimately cripple the US. Disabling the abilities of telco carriers that offer phone and internet services would further render us defenseless. Taking control of cell phone towers, and interrupting backup power to the IT infrastructure would be a fatal blow to the ways that we normally communicate as civilians. Since calls and texts ride on different levels, the adversary would have to make sure they disable use of both. This would ensure that mass communication systems were unusable, in addition to the electrical grid being down. At this point, citizen band and HAM radios would be one of the only forms left of communication.

Natural Gas Cyber Attack

As odd as this one sounds, meddling with natural gas would deliver quite the strike to the United States. This could be done in more ways than one. Other than homes supplied with electric heat, gas heat being eliminated from households would be troublesome. Think about if the attack were in the winter or fall months? To compound this, adversaries could also infect US gas companies via dangerous infrastructure attacks. Just like an attack on the power grid, this source of energy is just as scary.

Even if it is not as critical to the functionality of our society in hot areas, the supply could be used as a weapon. An adversary could gain control of natural gas delivery systems to towns, businesses, and homes with fatal results. Overloading the natural gas delivery could cause explosions on a large scale. Just recently in Boston, a flaw in the industrial gas control, as well as aging infrastructure contributed to various explosions throughout neighboring towns. Some theories suggest that this was just a cover story for the industrial systems being hacked by an adversary.  Homes, subway systems, and even rural areas could be overcome with massive explosions depending on the severity of the attack, small towns would simply be a dry run.

A Cyber Attack on Water

Industrial attacks on electrical, telco, and natural gas systems would be just the beginning. Attacks on the water supply could cause mass flooding in homes, and industrial buildings. SCADA systems controlling the water flow in sewers, and potable water could be either overloaded, or retracted, causing all sorts of problems for society.

Conclusion

Cyber terror groups have made the world a more dangerous place, that is fore sure. These rogue groups mean to do harm to anyone even if it means inflicting harm to their own country. Luckily, there are plenty of white-hat and government groups on the battlefront. Even with this safe barrier, it’s never a bad idea to think about how to survive when and if a large scale attack occurs!

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