The ability of several countries to launch politically motivated cyber-attacks has increased and put critical infrastructure in the crosshairs, according to a sweeping report from McAfee.
In its fifth annual Virtual Criminology Report (PDF), McAfee noted that not only have politically motivated cyber-attacks increased, but countries such as Russia, the United States and China are developing advanced offensive capabilities. According to the report, the United States nearly put its capabilities front and center before the 2003 invasion of Iraq when U.S. military and intelligence agencies planned a cyber-attack on the Iraqi financial system. The attack was called off out of concern that it would impact other countries, the report states.
"While in this case the U.S. decided to hold back due to the high risk of collateral damage, one can imagine what the consequences for the private sector might be if hostilities were to erupt between two major powers," according to the report.
Attackers have no shortage of targets, as the critical infrastructure in many developing nations is tied to the Internet. The McAfee report notes that supervisory control data acquisition (SCADA) systems for example were designed to help companies cut the costs of running and maintaining the infrastructure of the energy industry. When companies installed these systems, they didn't seem to have anticipated attackers might also want to control SCADA systems remotely to disrupt or damage them, the report contends.
"Despite the challenge of mapping out vulnerabilities in systems, there is evidence that it can be done and that attacks on utilities can be carried out successfully," the report states. "One senior analyst for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency said last year that hackers were able to attack the computer systems of utility companies outside the U.S., and in one case caused a power outage in multiple cities."
At this year's Black Hat conference in Las Vegas, there were talks dealing with vulnerabilities and security concerns tied to the adoption of smart grid technologies. Among the presenters was security consultant Mike Davis, who along with other researchers at IOActive developed proof-of-concept code for a worm that spread from smart meter to smart meter. In a recent interview with eWEEK, Davis said the government needs to take a stronger role in making sure smart grid technologies are engineered securely.
"Until recently the focus on the smart grid has been about adding flexibility to the grid," Davis said. "Unfortunately, hackers love flexible systems, and if we don't take care to engineer the smart grid correctly [not just the smart meters], we are engineering what may be a national failure. My personal feeling is that if we're investing stimulus funds to expand the capability of the grid, we should have some regulation, which requires security testing and verification and, of course, penetration testing."
McAfee CEO Dave DeWalt said the idea of a global cyber-arms race has become a reality.
"Now several nations around the world are actively engaged in cyber-war-like preparations and attacks," he said in a statement. "Today, the weapons are not nuclear, but virtual, and everyone must adapt to these threats."