Solar flares. Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Blizzards. What do all four of these natural phenomena have in common, other than the ability to make your frustrating Monday morning appear inconsequential in comparison? They are all unpredictable types of natural disasters that can wreak havoc upon sizable groups of people and large swaths of land. We can’t fully prepare for them, just for the idea of what kind of turmoil they may inflict upon us. We can empathize with individuals, families, and whole nations that have felt the brunt of such disasters, but unless we live in certain areas of a country or parts of the world, many of us will never have to endure such calamities firsthand. There are some catastrophes, however, that can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time. Man-made weapons, e.g. nuclear missiles, biological agents, and noticeably, cyber-attacks, all fit the bill.
For this very reason, cyber-attacks and cyber-security have both moved into the media spotlight in recent years, due in no small part to the increasing number of hacks, data breaches, and DoS, denial-of-service, attacks upon major retailers, movie production studios, and even government agencies. While the instances involving Sony, Target, and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management may showcase cyber-attacks as large-scale spectacles reminiscent of a James Bond operation, minor DoS attacks are just as common and far more lethal, yet they remain almost entirely off the common man’s radar.
In investigative journalist Ted Koppel’s recent exposé, Lights Out, he delves into the nature of DoS attacks and how they can be weaponized to attack one of our most vital utilities, electricity. With such an aging electrical grid as ours, it’s only a matter of time before it succumbs to the same attacks as other industries and corporations have unless short-term actions are taken by both the federal government and private entities to strengthen our electrical infrastructure. Throughout the novel, Koppel refers to the U.S. as a “reactive” society, not willing to invest our time and finances into solving a problem until it’s already upon us. This has been clearly illustrated in our handling of Hurricane Katrina, our lack of preparation for annual droughts and wildfires across the majority of the country, and even in our late responses to international crises including the Syrian Civil War and the events leading up to World War II.
Concerns have also surfaced over the increasingly fading line between state and non-state actors. In conventional warfare, you know when you’ve been bombed and can quickly surmise from whom the attack may have come. In cyberspace, conventional tactics are useless, and nations are rushing to set boundaries, draft better regulations, and make sense of such a new, ever-changing arena. If one has access to a computer, a stable internet connection, and the know-how to infiltrate such advanced networks, theoretically, anyone could become the next perpetrator of a crippling cyber attack. In our modern world where we are dependent upon technology for even our most basic necessities, this is just one dark aspect of our current reality which we’ll have to face head on.
The best way to defend against such attacks on our nation, states, and individual communities, is to first educate the populace. It’s a directive often voiced but rarely acted upon. The federal and state governments should have information and action plans available to its citizens, but individuals should also take it upon themselves to proactively research and implement cyber tactics that’ll protect them from future harm. Just as we taught our children to look both ways before crossing the street, never talk to strangers, and other mantras concerning safety, it’s time we reemploy that proactive mindset when spending time on the web, a place that’s becoming less transparent by the day.