Cyber Pearl Harbor

The New York Times reports that last week during a speech at the  Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned that the United States was “facing the possibility of a ‘cyber-Pearl Harbor’ and was increasingly vulnerable to foreign computer hackers who could dismantle the nation’s power grid, transportation system, financial networks and government.”

According to the article, Mr. Panetta said he was reacting to increasing aggressiveness and technological advances by the nation’s adversaries, which officials identified as China, Russia, Iran and militant groups.

“An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches,” Mr. Panetta said in the article. “They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”

Defense officials referred to a recent wave of cyberattacks on large American financial institutions.  In his speech, Mr. Panetta also cited an attack in August on the state oil company Saudi Aramco, which infected and made useless more than 30,000 computers.

Mr. Panetta is pushing for a cybersecurity bill that would require new standards of security at critical private-sector infrastructure facilities.  He was a major proponent of the cybersecurity bill that was voted down in August by a group of Republicans led by Senator John McCain, who was concerned that the regulations would be overly burdensome for corporations. 

Mr. Panetta warned of  “cyber-actors launching several attacks on our critical infrastructure at one time, in combination with a physical attack, “ which would result in a “cyber-Pearl Harbor that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life, an attack that would paralyze and shock the nation and create a profound new sense of vulnerability.”

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