Cyber Warfare: Invasion of the Kitchen Appliances

One of our favorite war stories is Napoleon Marching on Moscow. He had the strongest army in the world and was a dominant force in Europe. He had war figured out. And then the Russians changed the game.

He left Paris to march on Moscow with nearly a million men; he returned with 10,000. The Russians never even showed up.

Throughout history, civilizations have risen and fallen by each generation thinking that they had reached the apex of military technology development, only to be outdone by the next new piece of might.

The United States has the most powerful military and certainly seems to be at just such an apex. However, in October 2016 the US experienced their largest cyber attack ever, as household devices were commandeered and turned into an unwitting cyber army.

The fact that my thermostat prevented you from watching Netflix is neither World War III nor an overt cyberwar battle, but the implications are interesting. These attacks are becoming more commonplace, and security expert Bruce Shneier has suggested that

"someone is extensively testing the core defensive capabilities of the companies that provide critical Internet services."

He elaborates that this feels more like a nation calibrating their cyberwar machine than teenage hackers playing around.

Thermostats and Netflix are not the targets. The systems that these services rely on are.

Imagine an army showing up with all of their modern weaponry only to find a virus in the trigger chips, and nothing working.

Or what if all GPS signals were suddenly scrambled?

Attacks on critical infrastructure like power plants could bring down entire swaths of our economy. Look at what happened recently with Amazon AWS, which shut down hundreds of thousands of websites and stopped parts of our economy.

Burlington Electric in Vermont can attest to this threat in a physical realm - they found malicious Russian software on a computer in their facility. This time it didn't do anything, but what about the future?

There is more: globally, and especially in the US, we have become very dependent on information flowing across borders. Shutting that down or controlling the borders themselves could be a military objective that would hobble our economy.

And all of this can be done with a computer, no bombs needed.

So the nature of war will likely shift to become more virtual and we, our businesses and our technology can become targets and even unwitting accomplices.

  • How will you protect your data and proprietary information?

  • How will you protect your cross-border transactions and communications?

  • How will you protect your infrastructure from attack and from becoming an unwitting accomplice?

  • What would you do if information barriers appeared?

  • How would you operate without the internet?

Warfare doesn't offer a lot of opportunity except for those involved in conducting and supplying it, so the more catastrophic scenarios are impossible to plan for. This is a risk that is largely outside of our control. But it is important for us to pay attention, be aware of the shifting landscape, and include these wildcards in our planning.


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