The United States Government recently employed a private consulting firm to run a comprehensive test of our nation’s ability to respond effectively to a cyber-based terrorist attack against systems crucial to our financial systems, elctric power grid, and other vital systems.
The conclusions drawn from the exercise?
We are completely and utterly unprepared for any sort of coordinated attack on our systems, echoing the sentiment of many industry experts that our country is under immanent threat of a catastrophic attack sometime in the next two years.2009 will prove to be the year that this systemic weakness comes to the forefront of politics and the news:
Reuters - The United States is unprepared for a major hostile attack against vital computer networks, government and industry officials said Thursday after participating in a two-day “cyberwar” simulation.
“There isn’t a response or a game plan,” said senior vice president Mark Gerencser of the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting service, which ran the simulation.
One specific area of concern is in the vulnerability of our financial markets to manipulation, fraud, and most of all a concerted effort by a foreign entity to disrupt and disable out financial systems, throwing markets into artificial turmoil.
In an age where careless comments by politician, CEO’s and regulators can send a stock into a tailspin, and perhaps even drive an already troubled company’s stock to junk status, any threat to market stability should be addressed immidiately - remember Schumer and Indymac?
Democratic U.S. Rep. James Langevin of Rhode Island, who chairs the homeland security subcommittee on cybersecurity, said: “We’re way behind where we need to be now.” Dire consequences of a successful attack could include failure of banking or national electrical systems, he said.
Imagine a scenario as simple as this:
One morning 500,000 people wake to find their bank accounts have been “emptied” - and I put “emptied” in quotes because there actually does not need to be a “real” loss of funds, only the appearance that the funds are missing.
Subsequent news reports would cause a panic, as what little confidence is left in our banking system would cause a full scale run on the banks, with depositors emptying their accounts for fear of theft.
Wall Street reacts swiftly with a major sell-off of the already teetering financials, assuming there will be nothing but trouble for the affected institutions, and a fear that the entire industry has been compromised.
The Government steps in to reassure the markets by pointing to an FDIC insurance fund that is nearly exhausted of funds, and a Treasury that has nothing left in it’s tool box to prop up a poorly managed financial system - the very weakness the attackers are hoping to exploit.
Imagine, even if the whole truth was made clear to the public and investors alike within 3 days that there were actually no missing funds and that ‘all is well’ - how long do you think it would take before the markets would return to anything resembling normal?
The long term devastation to market and systemic confidence could be the straw that breaks this economic camel’s back, and really plunges us into the worst of all possible financial situations like a Depression, or worse.
This is just one of probably thousands of scenarios.
Leadership, both in the corporate and government sectors, as well as the American public in general, need to come to terms with the very precarious nature of our now fully electronic markets, and make a concerted effort to protect our wounded financial system from a potentially fatal blow.
“This is equivalent in my mind to before Sept. 11 … we were awakened to the threat on the morning after Sept. 11,” Rep. Langevin said.
The threat we face on a daily basis from the specter of cyber terrorism is so very real, it is highly doubtful we will be able to prevent a catastrophic event, but that is further reason to act now, and not after the first attack.
The tools are in place to prevent a great deal of these threats from ever materializing, and the remaining holes in the fence can be addressed as they are identified.
Billions of dollars must be spent by both government and industry to improve security, said U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the Democratic chairman of the intelligence subcommittee on technical intelligence.
Criminal elements may be less interested in ‘crashing’ our financial system than they would be in manipulating it to their advantage - a simple and nearly undetectable manipulation may net millions of dollars or more in a matter of hours.
The ability to manipulate volatile markets is regularly demonstrated by the Treasury Departments “Plunge Protection Team”- a well known aspect of the shadow banking system managed by the government and industry big-wigs that secretly rushes in with huge purchases of equities or other assistance when sectors begin gaining too much downward momentum. From my experience, anything the Government can do, a group of hackers can do immeasurably better.
This is the next financial catastrophe just waiting in the wings, ready to take center stage for an aria of economic woe.
Welcome to the 21st Century.