July 8, 2015, was not a good day for tech. First, United Airlines suspended flights for two hours due to a computer network problem . A few hours later, financial markets ground to a halt when the computer systems that power the New York Stock Exchange crashed because of a problem that is suspected to relate to a recent software upgrade.
For IT professionals at both firms, this would likely qualify as a “Wanna get away?” kind of day. For the rest of us, who are now hit daily with news of another cyber breach, this was a reminder of just how susceptible we are to the vagaries of completely vulnerable and fallible computer systems. So far, neither problem has been attributed to a cyber attack. But imagine if a coordinated cyber attack took aim at various critical economic and physical infrastructures, taking out transportation and utilities and hospitals and broadcasting and the financial markets, in a methodical, orderly, coldly calculated way. Stranded passengers and idle traders counting their losses would give way to mass hysteria and panic and the kind of disorder that always crops up in times of great instability. Markets would be disrupted, traffic would snarl, cities would go dark at dusk, and, most importantly, belief in the norms of our modern reality would give way to complete uncertainty and a reappraisal of whether our embracing of increasingly digital lives was simply the foundation of a high-tech house of cards.
A coordinated cyber attack would make 9/11 look like a street brawl. And, yet, it will happen. I am confidently unconfident.
Today, many of us felt a smidgeon of what we felt on 9/11. After seeing the two towers fall, we wondered, “What’s next?” So far, it seems wondering similarly today was unfounded, as the events at United and NYSE appear unrelated. But there was the exact same worry that what we were seeing today left more darkness yet to unfold. The fact that more didn’t happen doesn’t quell the lingering fear. The cost of todays’ disruptions, whether coincidental or not, pales in comparison to what could be done by a sophisticated nation against a relatively unsophisticated and depressingly porous system on which we are wholly and naively dependent.
Our systems are terribly vulnerable. Zero-day exploits – vulnerabilities for which there is no immediate remedy – occur daily. They occur because writing software is one of the most challenging things one can do, and testing it is a close second. Remember: a coordinated cyber attack will happen. The goal, then, is to make it less painful, less armageddon-like.
How? An effective plan would include the following:
- Encrypt everything. If the bad guys break in, what they’ll take away is jibberish. The trick to encrypting everything is to make encrypting data so easy that nobody has to think about it. You shouldn’t need to be a computer scientist, to know about private and public keys and symmetric key exchange, to be able to encrypt your files. It should happen automatically. Technologies from IONU and others are starting to make that happen.
- Every critical process must have a manual override: NYSE traders shouldn’t have to stop when the computers go down. Health care providers have to continue to tend to patients when their systems are compromised. In the same way that evacuation plans are devised and publicized, plans for continuing operations when the computers break must be clearly codified, too.
- Build in redundancy: Every critical system must figure out a way to make the computer systems on which they depend resilient to attack. For example, the electrical grid needs to be much more proactive in adopting local microgrids as a viable alternative, so that there aren’t central points of attack for a malevolent state to exploit. The financial markets need to develop a way to mirror what NYSE does to smaller, more geographically distributed exchanges so that vulnerability targets don’t become as centralized as operations are. Centralization is the enemy of resiliency. Decentralize!
These steps won’t quell the pain and panic, but they will help constrain the fallout from the inevitable coordinated cyber attack. Although they don’t seem to be the result of such an attack, today’s events demonstrate to us that we are terribly vulnerable to problems in the systems on which we over-depend and that we must figure out ways to continue to over-depend on them while giving us a chance to ride out the inevitable storm.