Just days after news broke of the Pentagon’s efforts to recruit IT professionals into Cyber Command’s new fighting force, the four-month-long online siege of The New York Times by Chinese hackers was revealed to the public, suggesting that protracted cyber warfare is a real danger.
According to the Times, evidence suggests that the Chinese government was behind the cyber-attack, using methods that some consultants have previously associated with the Chinese military.
China employs large numbers of government hackers that launch attacks against their enemies, including the United States, using methods not unlike those used in the attack against the Times.
"Hacking is now a regular business,” Nazli Choucri, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told GlobalPost. Choucri specializes in researching international cyber relations.
But is the US arsenal equipped to fight back?
“Our values prevent us from the type of recruitment and organization [of hackers] that China has. On the other hand, evidence suggests that US capabilities — offense or defense – are great,” Choucri said.
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The Defense Department is training cyber soldiers to make up for the shortage of personnel capable of fighting in the digital battlefield. Part of the recruiting effort will focus on hiring hackers, reported the Huffington Post — especially at global hacker conferences like DefCon, where US officials mingle with some of the world’s most prolific code crackers.
Last fall, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that the US was facing a “cyber-Pearl Harbor” as the country grew increasingly vulnerable to cyber-attacks launched by state actors. Such attacks could derail the nation’s power grid, financial networks, government systems and transportation infrastructure.
First on the list of targets in a cyber war scenario are systems that control critical infrastructure.
"We know of specific instances where intruders have successfully gained access to these control systems," Panetta said in a speech last year.
"We also know that they are seeking to create advanced tools to attack these systems and cause panic and destruction and even the loss of life," he added.
Panetta also urged Congress to pass legislation similar to the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, a bill that sought to protect infrastructure from cyber-attack that was voted down in the Senate late last year.
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In spite of recent efforts by the Defense Department and other agencies, however, the possibility of a state sponsored cyber-attack against critical infrastructure still looms. And the consequences of such an attack remain unknown.
“Disabling [of critical infrastructure] comes in many forms or flavors, with different impacts. I would doubt a total disabling but major inconvenience is not unlikely,” Choucri, the professor, told GlobalPost.