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Cyber Briefings ‘Scare The Bejeezus’ Out of You

May 9, 2012

While this blog typically concentrates on topics of interest to New Market Entrepreneurs that contribute toward helping them win new markets, this post shares a perspective of the sobering reality of the world in which we live. There is a silent war being waged in the shadows over the control and functionality of our indispensable computer networks.

Regardless of your industry, the web has become the circulatory system of business life.  Cut it off and we die.  This becomes even more apparent as more and more vital functions are moved to the cloud.  And whether you are a scrappy entrepreneur looking to get more with less or a big company market-builder, we are all moving more and more of our business operational lifeblood to the cloud.

Imagine one day turning on your computer, or smartphone or iPad only to find a blank screen or no access to the web.  Your personal life would quickly go into a tailspin.. if you are like most, your banking, bill paying, expense tracking and financial asset management is now on the cloud.    Now you head to work or put on your work hat from the home office.  What happens when you can’t fire up your computer or get a connection?  We conduct so much of our hourly business activities online, odds are that you are dead in the water.

There is some very scary stuff going on out there right now that doesn’t get regular mainstream coverage.  But this morning, this piece was featured on NPR, Cyber Briefings ‘Scare The Bejeezus’ Out Of CEOs, which gives us a look behind the scenes at the U.S. military’s Cyber Command and steps they are taking to prepare our non-military for what’s likely to come.

For the CEOs of companies such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, talk of cyberweapons and cyberwar could have been abstract. But at a classified security briefing in spring 2010, it suddenly became quite real.

“We can turn your computer into a brick,” U.S. officials told the startled executives, according to a participant in the meeting.

The warning came during a discussion of emerging cyberthreats at a secret session hosted by the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, along with Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the U.S. military’s Cyber Command.

The meeting was part of a public-private partnership dubbed the “Enduring Security Framework” that was launched at the end of 2008. The initiative brings chief executives from top technology and defense companies to Washington, D.C., two or three times a year for classified briefings. The purpose is to share information about the latest developments in cyberwarfare capabilities, highlighting the cyberweapons that could be used against the executives’ own companies.

“We scare the bejeezus out of them,” says one U.S. government participant.

Among the computer attack tools discussed during the briefings are some of the cyberweapons developed by the National Security Agency and the Cyber Command for use against U.S. adversaries. Military and intelligence officials are normally loath to discuss U.S. offensive cybercapabilities, but the CEOs have been cleared for some information out of a concern that they need to know what’s possible in the fast-evolving world of cyberwarfare.

Alexander himself hinted at the rationale for the briefings during testimony in March, before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“When we see what our folks are capable of doing, we need to look back and say, ‘There are other smart people out there that can do things to this country,’ ” Alexander said. “We need to look at that and say, ‘How are we going to defend [against them]?’ ”

The fear is that cyberweapons developed by the U.S. military could at some point fall into enemy hands and be turned against a U.S. target.

Curiously, the piece does not even mention the most famous example of a cyber-warfare weapon that is now out in the wild and likely in the hands of bad guys:  Stuxnet.  60 Minutes did a piece in March found here.  And last month we were riveted by this interview in Smithsonian Magazine Richard Clarke, America’s longtime counterterrorism czar who claims that the cyberwars have already begun—and that we might be losing.  This piece goes in-depth on the story of why the Stuxnet worm was created (to disrupt Iran’s nuclear capabilities), who created it (US and Israel) and what has happened since (bad guys now have it).

The tale involves a ghostly cyberworm created to attack the nuclear centrifuges of a rogue nation—which then escapes from the target country, replicating itself in thousands of computers throughout the world. It may be lurking in yours right now. Harmlessly inactive…or awaiting further orders.

Richard Clarke’s warnings may sound overly dramatic until you remember that he was the man, in September of 2001, who tried to get the White House to act on his warnings that Al Qaeda was preparing a spectacular attack on American soil.

Clarke later delivered a famous apology to the American people in his testimony to the 9/11 Commission: “Your government failed you.”

Clarke now wants to warn us, urgently, that we are being failed again, being left defenseless against a cyberattack that could bring down our nation’s entire electronic infrastructure, including the power grid, banking and telecommunications, and even our military command system.

“I think we’re living in the world of non-response. Where you know that there’s a problem, but you don’t do anything about it. If that’s denial, then that’s denial.”

Read more

Our bet is that the CEO’s referenced in the NPR piece were likely shown much of what was subsequently described by 60 Minutes and Richard Clarke.  So if you want the bejeezus scared out of you, click on!

If you were unaware or under-informed on this topic, sorry to be the bearer of bad news.   This is one of those areas I am not sure there’s much we can do as individuals, entrepreneurs, or otherwise– except, of course, to be aware that everything we depend on in our electronic lives needs a hard copy back-up.  Easier said than done at home and even more so for complex business operations.    If anybody has more specific advise, please share…

Let’s hope our military has a firm grasp on the cyber-warfare arms race and can stay ahead.

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