Did you open your BlackBerry Wednesday or even Thursday morning and find – nothing? No new e-mails, or tweets. No new text messages. Just blackness and that familiar screen saver photo of your child, spouse or dog? Welcome to the world of cyber-terrorism vulnerability.
The mysterious, world-wide virus that crippled BlackBerrys this week and spread like the plague – more on that threat later – across crossing oceans and five continents may spell financial catastrophe for the struggling Research In Motion aka RIM, whose stock shares have lost 60 percent of their value since the start of the year.
An RIM spokesman has said that the outage was caused by what Security Week called "a core switch failure within RIM's infrastructure," and not by a deliberate disabling attack. But the outage highlights the threat that determined cyber-warriors could pose to the nation's communications systems if they target them.
For over a decade cyber-experts have urged the U.S. to upgrade critical infrastructure to protect vital dams, power plants, and communications systems from cyber-crime or cyber-attacks from rival countries. But the country remains complacent and highly vulnerable, as the BlackBerry outage shows.
During a recent cyber-security summit in New York, numerous experts warned that cyber-attacks could not only cause billions of dollars in damage to such vital systems, but endanger national security.
The Stuxnet virus, which hit Iran's nuclear centrifuge plant, and the Blaster worm, which affected the electrical grid in the eastern U.S., exposed the continuing vulnerability of our nation's infrastructures.
North Korea, China, the US and South Korea, and even NATO are establishing cyber-military units to protect infrastructure and respond to attacks.
Washington is well aware of the threat. President Obama has repeatedly talked about the danger of cyberattacks while his Department of Homeland Security's National Cyber Security Division holds exercises and has designated October as "National Security Awareness Month" – yes, really. But sadly all too federal resources and focus are being allocated to eliminating or reducing this grave vulnerability.
Ditto another quiet threat that the nation seems to have quietly forgotten – biological warfare. The "Bio-Response Report Card," a recent report from a private group headed by two former senators – Bob Graham or Florida and Jim Talent of Missouri – both experts on WMD – warns that the U.S remains far too vulnerable to a naturally or deliberately inspired germ warfare attacks despite the expenditure of billions of dollars and more than a decade of focus. The report reminds us that the flu pandemic of 1918 killed over 20 million people worldwide, some 600,000 of them in the U.S. – more than all the American soldiers who died on World War I battlefields.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the report states, nearly 40,000 Americans die each year from seasonal flu. "And most experts agree that the human race is long overdue for an influenza pandemic far more deadly than the H1N1 pandemic of 2009–2010," it notes.
If natural outbreaks of disease weren't threatening enough, the report reminds us that the biotech revolution "now affords non-state actors the capability to produce sophisticated biological weapons" that can also be targeted at Americans.
This threat is growing. A video played on Al Jazeera TV in February 2009 and seen more than 100,000 times on various websites, the report states, featured a Kuwaiti professor openly talking about bringing four pounds of dry-powdered anthrax to Washington, D.C., and killing several hundred thousand Americans.
Plus, the website of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed over 70 campers on an island in Norway, spoke about using anthrax weapons. "There is serious doubt that he had the technical capability to produce any type of bioweapon," the report states, "but little question [that] he would have used one if available."
Finding the perpetrator of such a germs weapons attack would be difficult, the authors conclude. Although the FBI spent a decade trying to determine who killed and sickened Americans in the anthrax letter attack of October, 2001 in the wake of 9/11, many experts still challenge the agency's assertion that Bruce Ivins, a veteran researcher at the nation's premier bio-defense lab at Ft. Detrick, was the perpetrator of the deadly attack. We may never know for sure, as Mr. Ivins cracked under the FBI's pressure and committed suicide.
Cyber- and germ terrorism are quiet killers, and therefore, threats that are easy to underestimate. We ignore them at our peril.