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Cyber war and you

Aug. 11, 2010
“Cyberspace is actually … mundane. It’s the laptop you or your kid carries to school, the desktop computer at work. It’s a drab windowless building downtown and a pipe under the street. It’s everywhere, everywhere there’s a computer, or a processor, or a ...

Cyberspace is actually … mundane. It’s the laptop you or your kid carries to school, the desktop computer at work. It’s a drab windowless building downtown and a pipe under the street. It’s everywhere, everywhere there’s a computer, or a processor, or a cable connecting to one. And now it’s a war zone.” –Richard A. Clarke, counterterrorism expert and author of Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It

From where I sit, at least, the notoriety surrounding Richard Clarke tends to overshadow – if not completely obscure – his long tour of duty within the U.S. government, wrestling with how our increasing reliance on “cyberspace” and the Internet potentially exposes our nation to all sorts of electronic crimes and calamities with the worst sort of possible consequences.

Clarke is chiefly known for his highly critical analysis of the George W. Bush Administration's attitude toward counter-terrorism before the September 11 terrorist attacks and of its decision to go to war in Iraq – sharing these outspoken views very publicly before the 9/11 commission and in his memoir, Against All Enemies

What’s overlooked is Clarke’s 30 years worth of government service – from 1973 to 2003 – with the lion’s share spent in counter-terrorism work for both Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

He served in the State Department during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, followed by an appointment in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush as chairman of the Counter-Terrorism Security Group, along with a seat on the U.S. National Security Council (NSC).

President Bill Clinton retained Clarke and in 1998 promoted him to be the National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism, making him the NSC’s chief counter-terrorism adviser. Then, under President George W. Bush, became the Special Advisor to the President on cybersecurity.

So, whether you agree with his views or not, Clarke has amassed a lot of knowledge about terrorism and how terrorists – as well as criminal organizations – are increasing trying to use the Internet to conduct their nefarious operations.

“’Cyberspace’ is all of the computer networks in the world and everything they connect and control. It’s not just the Internet,” he noted in his recent book Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It.

Written with Robert Knake and released back in April, this hefty tome clocks in at 304 pages, yet deftly breaks down what cyberspace is all about – and how its many electronic connections can be used to threaten the U.S. as whole.

“Let’s be clear about the difference. The Internet is an open network of networks. From any network on the Internet, you should be able to communicate with any computer connected to any of the Internet’s networks,” Clarke noted. “Cyberspace, however, includes the Internet plus lots of other networks of computers that are not supposed to be accessible from the Internet. Some of those private networks look just like the Internet, but they are, theoretically at least, separate.”

Some parts of cyberspace are transactional networks that do things like send data about money flows, stock market trades, and credit card transaction, he explained. Some networks are control systems that just allow machines to speak to other machines, like control panels talking to pumps, elevators, and generators.

“What makes these networks a place where militaries can fight? In the broadest terms, ‘cyber warriors’ can get into these networks and control or crash them. If they take over a network, cyber warriors could steal all of its information or send out instructions that move money, spill oil, vent gas, blow up generators, derail trains, crash airplanes, send a platoon into an ambush, or cause a missile to detonate in the wrong place,” Clarke said.

[Clarke talked about this in more detail during a recent radio interview with WNYC in New York City seen below.]

If cyber warriors crash networks, wipe out data, and turn computers into doorstops, then a financial system could collapse, a supply chain could halt, a satellite could spin out of orbit into space, an airline could be grounded.

“These are not hypotheticals. Things like this have already happened, sometimes experimentally, sometimes by mistake, and sometimes as a result of cyber crime or cyber war,” Clarke warned.

He pointed to comments made by former U.S. Navy Vice Admiral John “Mike” McConnell (seen at right) not too long ago.

“Information managed by computer networks—which run our utilities, our transportation, our banking and communications—can be exploited or attacked in seconds from a remote location overseas,” McConnell noted recently. “No flotilla of ships or intercontinental missiles or standing armies can defend against such remote attacks located not only well beyond our borders, but beyond physical space, in the digital ether of cyberspace.”

Clarke, in turn, believes the design of computer networks, the software and hardware that make them work, and the way in which they were "architected," create thousands of ways that cyber warriors can get around security defenses.

“People write software and people make mistakes, or get sloppy, and that creates opportunities,” he said. “Networks that aren’t supposed to be connected to the public Internet very often actually are, sometimes without their owners even knowing.”

How does all of this involve trucking? That’s actually an easy one. As we all know, the push is on to “digitize” everything from paper logbooks and bills of lading to vehicle inspection records, safety audits, and the like – and making sure all of this electronic data is secure is a major priority among all the parties involved in this shift, from shippers and truckers to government entities of all stripes.

So as trucking moves into an ever-more electronic business footprint, cybersecurity will need to become a much more prominent topic within this industry.

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