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Cover Story

Cyber security: The new arms race for a new front line

The Pentagon – and a growing cyber industrial complex – gears up for the new front line: cyberspace. Cyber defense is necessary. But it could cost us.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / September 15, 2013

Cyber security and the Pentagon bid to lead it, is the topic of the cover story of the Sept. 16 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Illustration by Nancy Stahl

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Wall Township, N.J.

In the eastern New Jersey suburbs, a train carrying radiological material is barreling toward a small town, and it is up to Pentagon cyber-operators to derail it. The town is the kind of idyllic whistle-stop hamlet where residents socialize at a cafe with complimentary Wi-Fi while surfing FaceSpace, a social networking site.

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But danger lurks all around. Terrorists are using the open Wi-Fi connection to hack into the laptop of a patron who works at the hospital down the street. They plan to find the hospital codes stored in his computer to access the mayor's medical records, in which they will change the dosage of a prescription the mayor refills regularly in an effort to poison him.

They have other nefarious future schemes, too: They will cut the power grid with a nasty cybervirus and destroy the local water supply by engineering a program to make it appear as though the reservoir is polluted. When employees dump chemicals into the water to fix the problem, they will inadvertently be doing just what the terrorists want: contaminating the water supply.

This model town – CyberCity – is one of the US military's premier cyberwar simulators. Situated in a surprisingly unassuming suburban enclave, it is built with hobby shop-supplied model trains, miniature cellphone towers, and streetlights – all attached to a miniature power grid.

CyberCity is just a small town compressed onto an 8-by-10-foot plywood table. But its intricate electronic detail highlights the Pentagon's growing effort to expand its offensive cyberwarfare skills in a bid to bolster the nation's cybersecurity, through increasingly sophisticated and aggressive forays that have the potential to revolutionize the way America's military fights wars.

While the military has long fought on land, sea, and air, the emerging cyber-realm is forcing top defense officials to navigate the far less tangible – ever more murky – battlefield of computer attacks.

CyberCity offers some insight into one of the attack scenarios that senior military officials fear most: Bad guys plotting to take down the US power grid or financial networks.

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta characterized this sort of strike as a "cyber Pearl Harbor," a doomsday sobriquet that has quickly become part of the cyber lexicon. And Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has picked up the banner, warning that a cybersiege could "paralyze an electric grid, a banking system, knock out computers on ships or weapons systems – and you never fire a shot."

So the Pentagon is rapidly ramping up to expand its cyberwarfare capacity, bidding to be the go-to authority for the nation's cyberdefense. Cyber-operations is one of its few areas that will see a considerable budget increase – from $3.9 billion this year to $4.7 billion in 2014. And its cadre of cyberwarriors manning computers will expand fivefold over the next two years.

A cyber-industrial complex blooms

Yet with this explosion in US military cyber-operations – and with the corresponding boom in the number of defense contractors to support cyber-activity – comes concern that a rapidly expanding "cyber-industrial complex" could jeopardize the openness and democratic ideals of the Internet.

It's a threat that seems more pressing in light of National Security Agency surveillance exposed by former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden. The operations of the NSA, a US military organization, indicate that some officials want nothing more "than to identify anyone who connects to the Internet – to get rid of anonymity – so that we can always know who says what to whom," argues Jerry Brito, an attorney and senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

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