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  • Simulated Cyberwar Hits DC
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 11:32 AM on Feb 17, 2010

    As Washington recovered from a week of paralysis caused by nasty weather, a group of ten high-powered insiders took the stage at the Mandarin Oriental hotel to play a real-time wargame, based on a massive cyber-attack on the United States.

    This was a serious operation with big money behind it - full-scale video with boom cameras, professional lighting and Wolf Blitzer to do the introductions - and was sponsored by an array of information and cybersecurity companies - including PayPal, Symantec and General Dynamics - under the umbrella of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

    The scenario was a White House meeting chaired by the National Security Advisor - the role played by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff - including the Defense Secretary (retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Wald) and the Secretary of State (former director of national intelligence John Negroponte). It was unscripted and dynamic, interrupted by news broadcasts (War of the Worlds, here we come) and runners delivering paper messages.

    (At this point, a dream of hacking the occasion itself came to mind. Picture Chertoff wrinkling his brow and telling the group:  "I have just been handed a message that reads ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US...")

    The scenario started with a virus affecting smart phones, which rapidly started taking down mobile phone service across the US, blacking out the areas of densest population first. Within half an hour the virus had taken down most of the Internet and 75 minutes into the exercise, the electrical grid was going down from the East Coast to Oklahoma City.

    Virus? It made Stephen King's Captain Trips look like a case of the sniffles.

    The game raised some interesting questions, including the vulnerability of the government's own communications - how could you activate the National Guard without cellphone service? - and the President's ability to respond to an attack that looked like warfare, caused damage like warfare but could not be tied to a foreign adversary. Indeed, figuring out who was responsible, and who and how to retaliate against, was a big part of the problem.

    Playing the part of attorney-general, Jamie Gorelick (deputy AG in the Clinton administration) proposed extraordinary rendition if the culprits were detected.

    Fran Townsend, acting as Homeland Security Secretary, was the house alarmist, repeatedly warning that "people are going to start dying" and that the "Posse Comitatus element" would take to the streets if the power cuts continued (there is a large Posse Comitatus cell in midtown Manhattan, as we all know).

    How likely is the nightmare scenario? Chertoff, at one point, made a simple and important observation:  Many cyber-attack problems can be nipped in the bud if people follow best practices and make proper use of available tools. Another participant noted that while the White House deliberated, the private entities that run 80 per cent of the net were not sitting on their hands.

    Also, the scenario authors had to work hard to bring the power failures into the picture: it took a summer of high demand, a hurricane that damaged supply lines, and bombings coordinated with the cyber-attack, to weaken the system to the point where the failure of the Internet would bring it down.

    And there was one odd omission, related to the team's puzzlement about whether a state or non-state actor was responsible:  In a real-world attack there would have been one big clue, and it was never talked about. What was happening to phones and the Internet in the rest of the world? A virulent infection like this would surely spread globally - and any part of the world where it did not spread would be suspect. But apart from a reference to power outages in Canada, the rest of the world might as well not have existed

    Tags: ar99, cyberwar

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