Imagine you woke up to discover a massive cyber attack on your country. All government data has been destroyed, taking out healthcare records, birth certificates, social care records and so much more. The transport system isn’t working, traffic lights are blank, immigration is in chaos and all tax records have disappeared. The internet has been reduced to an error message and daily life as you know it has halted.
This might sound fanciful but don’t be so sure. When countries declare war on one another in future, this sort of disaster might be the opportunity the enemy is looking for. The internet has brought us many great things but it has made us more vulnerable. Protecting against such futuristic violence is one of the key challenges of the 21st century.
Strategists know that the most fragile part of internet infrastructure is the energy supply. The starting point in serious cyber warfare may well be to trip the power stations which power the data centres involved with the core routing elements of the network.
Back-up generators and uninterruptible power supplies might offer protection, but they don’t always work and can potentially be hacked. In any case, backup power is usually designed to shut off after a few hours. That is enough time to correct a normal fault, but cyber attacks might require backup for days or even weeks.
William Cohen, the former US secretary of defence, recently predicted such a major outage would cause large-scale economic damage and civil unrest throughout a country. In a war situation, this could be enough to bring about defeat. Janet Napolitano, a former secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security, believes the American system is not well enough protected to avoid this.