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Scenario puts energy, politics in hackers' cross hairs

Jul. 17, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
An Army cyber official's scenario in which foreign hackers cause power outages, influence the U.S. electorate and invade a U.S. ally has drawn mixed responses.
An Army cyber official's scenario in which foreign hackers cause power outages, influence the U.S. electorate and invade a U.S. ally has drawn mixed responses. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
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An Army cyber official warns that the U.S. faces a possible cyberwar in which anonymous foreign computer hackers penetrate government networks andcreate friction between the U.S. and its allies, discredit elected officials, and create political and economic instability if the U.S. fails to adapt.

In a recent academic thesis, Col. Bryant Glando paints a nightmarish picture of how attacks against the U.S. might unfold to influence its political process and national security objectives — without a shot being fired.

To avert catastrophe, Glando argues the Defense Department should elevate cyber from a primary mission to a core mission area, a new strategic approach that would provide a military advantage in cyberspace “over all potential adversaries.”

“The threats are real,” the thesis reads, before paraphrasing military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. “It is not a matter of if but a matter of when a nation or non-nation state develops a new type of warfare to exploit an Achilles’ heel of the United States in order to achieve its own strategic objectives. The nature of war does not change, but warfare does, and those who adapt survive, and those who fail suffer the consequences.”

As proposed by Glando, cyberwarfare would have a whole-of-government approach, as supported by DoD’s definition of a core mission area. The way it’s organized, he argues, “potentially degrades the ability to deter, defend, and defeat an adversary in, through, and from cyberspace. Why, because this fundamentally violates the joint principles of unity of command, economy of force, and mass as defined in U.S. Joint Publication 3-0.”

Soon to become deputy chief of U.S. Cyber Command’s J-35 Future Operations Cell, Glando is the former deputy director of the cyberspace proponent for Army Cyber Command/2nd Army, based at Fort Belvoir, Va., and a part of U.S. Cyber Command.

In the early 2000s, Glando led an Army task force that was part of the joint response to “Titan Rain,” a series of cyber espionage attacks attributed to the Chinese and used to pilfer information from American government agencies and defense contractors.

The 'art of the possible'

The 10 years since have seen, among other incidents, the 2007 cyberattacks that swamped Estonian websites amid a dispute with Russia; the hacking of Ossetian media and government websites during the 2008 Georgia-South Ossetia war; the 2010 Stuxnet malware attack on an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility; and cyber espionage efforts originating from China, including spying against military, commercial, research and industrial corporations.

Peering into the future, Glando’s “art of the possible” scenario sees country “ABC” launch a sophisticated 3˝-year string of cyberattacks against the U.S. and country “XYZ,” which it hopes to take over. ABC penetrates the U.S. defense sector, sows disinformation in the U.S. political system, attacks critical government services, fuels civil unrest with leaks and tension between the U.S. and its allies.

Hackers, presumably from ABC, launch anonymous attacks and, at one point, steal the plans for the Joint Strike Fighter. Later, ABC reveals its plans for a similar jet.

The attacks get personal, exposing the extramarital affair of a U.S. senator who supports a bilateral defense agreement with XYZ.

In an eerie case of academics imitating life, Glando’s scenario has a new Pentagon directive for counter-cyber espionage that outrages the public because it calls for increased monitoring of U.S. public communications.

Disinformation is a key part of the cyberattacks. When the hacker collective Anonymous leaks the directive online, “Pentagon officials report that some of the information posted was incorrect or was modified. U.S. public is outraged and demands justice. Litigation is initiated by a group of concerned U.S. citizens to prevent this directive from being implemented.”

The month before 2014 elections, unknown hackers gain access to various political websites, Twitter and Facebook accounts and manipulate the statements of key political officials on sensitive political issues. Later, U.S. Senate and House majorities change, spurring a new emphasis on domestic issues and relations in the Western Hemisphere. Some members of Congress begin pushing “for a new strategic shift to look inward and are requesting a review of all bilateral defense agreements.”

Over the next year, a software glitch crashes a U.S. attack helicopter, the U.S. experiences power outages, water and sewage systems in Illinois suffer power outages and XYZ’s critical infrastructure experiences outages. Cyberattacks are the implied cause.

The stock market and employment numbers plummet after unknown hackers remove $2 trillion from electronic circulation.

December 2016 brings the grand finale, as key military systems in XYZ and the U.S. fail because of software glitches; utilities at U.S. military bases near XYZ fail, which delays U.S. forces from responding to ABC’s imminent invasion of XYZ.

At home, a coordinated cyberattack on critical infrastructure within the U.S. and XYZ shuts down key government services, “creating chaos across the public and private sectors.”

“Country ABC launches a massive invasion of country XYZ,” the thesis reads. “The ability of the U.S. to respond with sufficient military power is delayed due to the crippling effects of a concentrated cyberspace warfare campaign directed against the United States, its allies and country XYZ.”

Hard and soft power

Jeffrey Carr, founder of cybersecurity consultancy Taia Global and author of “Inside Cyber Warfare,” faulted Glando’s scenario and called the proposed solution “irrelevant to the actual threat landscape.” He said in an email to Army Times that the scenario “goes from being vastly under-stated (a 20-minute power outage?) to vastly overstated (casting doubt in an electorate’s mind) and demonstrates a lack of understanding about what’s technically possible, not to mention realistic.”

Reached by Army Times, Glando agreed more devastating cyberattacks are possible, but said in his scenario, the adversary was using stealthier “brownouts” to confuse efforts to attribute the attacks and the response. Otherwise, Glando disagreed that cyberattacks could not be used to influence an electorate and cited current events.

“During the Arab Spring, modern technology was used to spur dissent, and not just in a single country,” he said.

Christopher Bronk, a former diplomat with the State Department and a fellow specializing in information technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said cyber operations can enable the application of hard power and soft power, as suggested by Glando.

“The scenario has it all, the kind of kinetic attacks that makes the oil and gas industry go kaboom to influence games like, ‘Oh, this country’s going to lose some senatorial support,’ ” Bronk said.

According to Bronk, the military must make cybersecurity part of its culture “because computing pervades everything the military does now. It’s all ones and zeroes, and digital technology is embedded all the way down to a rifle company.”

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