America the Vulnerable
America has become the fattest cyber attack target on the planet, writes Joel Brenner in his disturbing new book.
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In a short, but infuriating, chapter called "Dancing in the Dark," Brenner lays out how utilities have connected industrial control systems that regulate the US power grid to the internet to make it marginally easier and cheaper to operate. Unfortunately, that move has granted foreign nations' hackers access to map those systems and position cyber weapons to take down the grid in the event of hostilities.Skip to next paragraph
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"Most owners and operators don't want to believe it, even as the evidence of their vulnerability mounts," he writes. "They'd rather dance in the dark, figuratively – and raise the risk that the rest of us will be dancing in the dark, literally."
In another chapter called "June 2017," the author details a plausible future scenario in which a Chinese premier blackmails a US president, knocking out chunks of the North American power grid and threatening wider outages. In the end, a US carrier group fails to come to Taiwan's aid. And this is the real problem – the US may not in the end be overtly wrecked by its cyber vulnerabilities, but it may be weakened into inaction and the status of a global follower, he writes.
"I'm not predicting this scenario, but it's well within the realm of possibility. And we would be foolhardy not to prepare for it," he writes. "With the exception of successful attacks on our electricity grid – and we know the grid is vulnerable – virtually every aspect of this fictional scenario has already happened."
How did we get here? The White House under President Bush began to awaken and move on the cyber threat late in his tenure. President Obama in May unveiled the nation's first new cyber strategy, still mostly on paper. Congress, which could produce helpful legislation, has mostly spent its time holding hearings. The Pentagon's new US Cyber Command has made important steps, yet is still unable to protect privately held domestic critical infrastructure like the power grid. The Department of Homeland Security, scrambling, is trying to enlist NSA help to do that.
Thankfully, Brenner doesn't leave us adrift, offering up a chapter with specific recommendations for a "modest but essential beginning" toward "managing the mess" that US cyber insecurity has become. He also analyzes in detail why inertia has taken hold in government and the private sector exists, and how it could be overcome.
Brenner had both advantages and disadvantages in pulling together so much information and organizing it in a way that paints a cohesive picture of the problem – and solutions. On the one hand, he had a terrific insider's perch, yet he's not permitted by law to reveal classified information. How to avoid jail? Like any good lawyer, he has gone to public sources to document everything with information already in the public domain.
All that research has left "America the Vulnerable" a refreshingly solid piece of research anchored by nearly 40 pages of footnotes. Fortunately, rather than resulting in a turgid prose, the documentation framed by insider perspective and spiced with numerous case examples makes a compelling, readable narrative.
One late chapter on how intelligence services are being impacted is the lone exception to the book's readability, probably appealing mostly to policy wonks or fellow intelligence professionals. Even so, this book – along with Clarke's – should be required reading on Capitol Hill and in the West Wing.
Mark Clayton is a Monitor staff writer.