We all remember movies like WarGames, where some whiz kid wants to show off his computer skills, hacking into government computers, poking around until he finds the control for nuclear weapons. Then, tragedy is averted at the last second before World War III is triggered. That’s some good entertainment, but gone are the days when people thought this kind of event could actually happen.
The chance some random hacker on the Internet could trigger a nuclear blast is ridiculously tiny. For one thing, all the control systems for these mass destruction weapons are so old, they couldn’t even be plugged into the Internet, much less accessed remotely. Plus, the risks are well understood, and there’s a large amount of very smart people working on making sure such a scenario never leaves the world of Hollywood.
But another series of events has been happening lately with almost complete impunity, which if they continue, could become almost as devastating to society as a missile launch. As individuals, businesses, and governments become more and more interconnected, hackers have been scoring increasingly scary hits against their systems.
It used to be that hackers would target logins and passwords, perhaps credit card numbers, by using malware on computer systems, but in the past 12 months, the target has shifted. Earlier this year, hackers targeted RSA, a maker of security tokens for big corporations. This allowed the hackers to compromise government contractors that were said to be impregnable, because of the RSA security devices they used. Then last month, there was a report of hackers getting into Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, one of the top makers of submarines and weapon components like the Patriot Missile.
While systems that control the actual firing of weapons are apparently safe from hackers, it’s becoming evident that everything else in the chain, whether it’s the people who are supposed to be securing our systems, or the companies making the weapons, is highly vulnerable to attacks. Then, you have statements from the DoD saying that cyber terrorism is an act of war. The Pentagon said: “If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks.”
It’s easy to see where this could lead. While armies are busy securing their weapon systems and communications against new online threats, the backdoor is completely open. Shut down a power grid, a military contractor, or a missile maker, and you cripple a country’s ability to defend itself. If you do it against the United States in the name of another nation, that country might be fired upon. So, how long before we start seeing viruses made specifically to infest missile control systems?
Another interesting target is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are the future of air combat. UAVs allow pilots to stay comfortably at the base, while the small plane takes off, drops its bombs, and comes back to base. Right now, UAVs are heavily used in combat. As an example, in 2005 the U.S. military killed between 6 and 7 people using UAV drones in Pakistan alone; in 2010, that number was between 607 and 993 casualties. (Those statistics were found on Wikipedia.) These things kill, and they rely on a mountain of software, produced by companies all around the world. Will we see the day when a drone stops answering its military operator, and instead phones home to a hacker in a remote part of the world, because one of its circuits had been injected with malware back at the factory?
It’s hard to dismiss these threats, because all the evidence so far is that computer security is an afterthought for many people and businesses. It’s clear that we’re heading into a world that is highly technological, where software controls a lot of our modern life. Even with our computers running antivirus software, there are still regular reports of identity fraud, websites being hacked, and so on. Smartphones are the big target right now, with malware on the rise. The next targets are the integrated circuits — things that used to be too simple to hack, but are now highly sophisticated and constantly online.
Could World War III be caused by a rogue hacker? No, I don’t think so — at least not in the way that’s shown in the movies — but if things keep going the way they are, how could this not be the end result? Money and power is often the driving force of people all around the world, and if a target is left wide open for abuse, you know it’s just a matter of time before someone hits the button.