Cyber-terror: How real is the threat? Squirrels are more of a danger

No, go ahead, let's spend billions worrying about an iPearl Harbor

Doom, gloom, and profits

Doomsayers have been speaking about a Cyber Pearl Harbor and latterly a cyber-9/11 for many years, long before the rise of Daesh. Nothing devastating has happened, thankfully, even from nation-state grade attackers, much less terrorists.

About the worst cyber-attack ever recorded were wiper malware-style infections within the enterprise PC networks of Saudi Aramco and RasGas in 2012 (chief suspect: Iran) and South Korean banks and broadcasters as part of “Dark Seoul” in 2013 (chief suspect: North Korea) and Sony Pictures last year (North Korea, allegedly, again).

None of these attacked industrial control systems. The only example of a software nasty deliberately wrecking equipment that we all know about is the infamous Stuxnet worm, which hobbled centrifuges at nuclear facilities in Natanz, Iran. Stuxnet has been widely attributed to a joint US-Israeli operation.

So, in summary, hackers have never been credited with taking down a power grid. States themselves, which have a lot more resources behind them, have only been credited with a handful of full-on, serious enterprise attacks. Only the combined brainpower of America's NSA and Israel's IDF Unit 8200 has ever produced something that affected a physical plant. Again, that we all know of.

From what we know in the public domain, it’s not fanciful to think that Daesh might be able to launch a cyber-attack, but its capabilities in the area lag far behind those of even hermit kingdom North Korea. That third-party hackers might help them in accomplishing their goals is also a stretch.

Hackers have never taken out a power grid; squirrels have more luck sabotaging electrical systems. They love to chew through cables, a habit that results in bangs, fried meat, outages, all sorts of problems for power distribution utilities, and occasionally even fires., a site that logs these types of incidents, reckons the rodents have been responsible for 505 such operations. Birds have reached 141, and raccoons 31. Humanity has clocked up just one.

All of this is a bit of fun, but it does raise a serious point. Why is the UK spending so much to prevent cyber-attacks by rogue states or the likes of dark-age terror bastards, when there’s no evidence they have the capability and even their motivation to attack systems online is at least open to question.

As previously reported, the Chancellor last week claimed that the Islamic State "have not been able to use it [the internet] to kill people yet by attacking our infrastructure through cyber attack. They do not yet have that capability. But we know they want it, and are doing their best to build it.”

Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, told El Reg that even though it might now be possible to kill people by hacking – for example, by interfering with medical equipment via poorly secured hospital networks – that does not suit a terrorist's wider purposes.

”If you want to inflict terror, then you'd get a lot more impact by just walking through the West End of London and shooting a few people,” he said. ®


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