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Cyber security in 2013: How vulnerable to attack is US now? (+video)

Businesses, government, and individuals seek better cyber security measures, as cyberattacks mount in the US. One key focus is how to protect 'critical' systems such as power, water, and transportation.

By Staff writer / January 9, 2013

A student practices the art of cyberwarfare in a class at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., learning both how to attack and defend computer networks.

Jordan Silverman/Norwich University/AP

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The phalanx of cyberthreats aimed squarely at Americans' livelihood became startlingly clear in 2012 – and appears poised to proliferate in 2013 and beyond as government officials, corporate leaders, security experts, and ordinary citizens scramble to devise protections from attackers in cyberspace.

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Some Americans came screen to screen with such threats via their smart phones, discovering malicious software (malware) designed to steal their credit-card numbers, account passwords, and even the answers to their secret security questions. Others were temporarily blocked from accessing their bank accounts online, as US bank websites came under major attack at least twice in 2012 by a hacker group with possible ties to Iran. Some citizens learned that their home PCs had become infected by "ransomware," which locks up a computer's operating system until the bad guys get paid – and often even afterward.

But personal inconvenience is only the beginning. Homeland security is also at stake. The US government in 2012 learned that companies operating natural gas pipelines were under cyberattack, citing evidence that cyberspies, possibly linked to China, were infiltrating the companies' business networks. Those networks, in turn, are linked to industrial systems that control valves, switches, and factory processes. Utilities that operate the nation's electric grid are known to have been another target, as are US tech companies. Crucial government agencies, such as the Pentagon and the Federal Trade Commission, are also targets.

It all adds up to growing evidence – recognized to varying degrees by the US public, politicians, and businesses – that cybersecurity is the next frontier of national security, perhaps second only to safeguarding the nation against weapons of mass destruction.

"The cyberthreat facing the nation has finally been brought to public attention," says James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington national-security think tank. "Everyone knows it's a problem. It has moved out of the geek world, and that's a good thing. But it's led to more confusion than clarity. So now we're developing the skills to talk about it – and it's taking longer than I thought it would."

The awakening to cyberthreats has been gradual. In 2010, news of the world's first cyberweapon – the Stuxnet computer worm that attacked part of Iran's nuclear fuel program – burst upon the scene, raising concern about broad replication. Then came an increasing onslaught from hacktivist groups, which often stole and released private data. Between December 2010 and June 2011, for example, members of Anonymous were responsible for cyberattacks against the websites of Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal, as part of a tit for tat over the controversial WikiLeaks website.

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