“Are you trying to scare us?”
This was the answer from Ted Koppel, veteran investigative journalist and former host of ABC News’ Nightline, in response to a question by Chris Bury during a conversation about American cybersecurity hosted by the Institute of Politics. Bury, a former ABC News Nightline correspondent and current reporter for Al Jazeera America, opened the discussion with Koppel by reading one of “the scariest quotes” he could find in Koppel’s latest book, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath. The quote, a statement from former Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, declared that the United States “would lose” if faced with a targeted cyber attack effort. Although Koppel reiterated that this belief may not be widely shared in the intelligence community, he warned that the United States depends heavily on digital infrastructure technologies and therefore, as a superpower, could be especially vulnerable to cyberattacks.
Koppel explained how, although it is considered standard protocol for nations to collect intelligence on one another, cyber espionage “takes it to a whole new level.” Koppel cited numerous examples of intelligence operations conducted by China, Russia, and even the United States against one another, but there is the possibility that these nations have embedded digital time bombs and “cyber mines” within the American grid which “can be activated with the stroke of a laptop key.” Yet Koppel cautioned that this is not as alarming as one might think. Rather, he reassured the guests that there are certain safeguards preventing a full-scale cyber war involving Russia or China because of foreign diplomacy and the nations’ “interlocking relationships” with each other and the United States. American intelligence has also employed similar methods against China and Russia, Koppel added, and that it is “most unlikely” that any of these three nations will hit the key any time soon. However, if Russia or China does launch a cybersecurity attack against the United States’ infrastructure, Koppel predicted that “it will be nothing less than an act of war.”
Koppel fears that a cyberattack against American infrastructure could affect tens of millions of people for months, if not longer. He expressed frustration with the lack of coverage on potential cyber warfare against American infrastructure, despite the warnings from former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about the possibility of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” in 2012, and from President Obama on the need for better legislation to “meet the evolving threat of cyber attacks” in his 2015 State of the Union address. In light of these national leaders’ concerns, Koppel added, “It’s not a question of if, but of when.”
The wide-ranging discussion also touched on the 2015 cyberattacks on Sony Pictures in the wake of Seth Rogen’s controversial film, “The Interview”, about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Koppel told the audience how it had taken the FBI months to definitively conclude that North Korea launched the attack. He then proposed to the audience how devastating it would be if North Korea had instead attacked the United States’ power grids and left the American public without electricity. As evidenced by the Sony hackings, it takes immense amounts of time, energy, and resources to determine the origin of a cyberattack, which further complicates the security protocol that must be taken. Missiles are much easier to trace than laptops, he continued, which means that, because a cyber attacker can easily hide the line of command, the concept of “mutually assured destruction is not a disincentive of cyberwarfare.” Moreover, while mutually assured destruction might discourage Iran from launching a nuclear missile against the United States, Koppel argued that “cyberwar is a whole different story.”
Bury then interjected about how recent reports indicate that a Russian airliner was brought down by a bomb, for which ISIS has reportedly claimed responsibility. Bury questioned the ability of non-state actors, like ISIS, to orchestrate cyberattacks against national governments and infrastructures. While Koppel doubted that non-state actors currently have the capability to do so, he considered the possibility that ISIS certainly has the funding to buy both the expertise and equipment needed to carry out cyberattacks in the future. If their main objective is to inflict as much damage as possible, Koppel argued, then there are no inhibitions for groups like ISIS not to launch cyberattacks. He added, “You don’t need an army. You don’t need a navy. You don’t need an air-force. You don’t need missiles. You [just] need the knowledge to be able to launch an attack like this. And you need a laptop computer.
However, Koppel did not wholly discredit the United States’ cyber capabilities. He offered the example of how American intelligence collaborated with Israel to launch a sophisticated series of cyberattacks against Iran that embedded Stuxnet computer viruses into Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities. The Americans and Israelis reportedly borrowed a tactic from the film Ocean’s Eleven, implanting a fake video in the Iranian control room that showed the Stuxnet-targeted centrifuges spinning normally. In reality, the cyber virus was wreaking so much damage on the centrifuges that it set back the Iranian nuclear program one to two years. Koppel admitted that the United States technically fired the first shot in this cyber battle, and in using computer viruses as an offensive strategy, “We can do a hell of a job.”
Koppel discussed how a cyberattack against United States power grids could prove devastating for American citizens. In reference to Superstorm Sandy, Koppel noted how the long blackout after the storm posed problems not only for heat and electricity, but also for food distribution, human waste disposal, and access to gasoline at gas stations (as electric motors are needed to pump gas from tanks into vehicles). Although Superstorm Sandy ultimately left millions without power for only a few weeks, Koppel warned that losing electricity for long months at a time could prove much more disastrous. What could happen, he warned, is that millions of citizens from areas without electricity would be forced to seek shelter, food, and clean water in neighboring states, straining interstate relationships and resources, and even creating a national refugee crisis along state borders. Koppel criticized how the federal government’s safety plans fail to address these looming threats, and he demanded that more attention be paid to the ways in which citizens can prepare for massive power outages.
The only group sufficiently prepared for a cyber blackout? “The Mormons!” Koppel exclaimed, before describing how he had researched and investigated the Mormon community in Salt Lake City, Utah. He described how the Mormon Church has instructed its members to prepare for catastrophe and encouraged them to store away massive quantities of food that would last months. Salt Lake City’s Mormons, he explained, have built a “mind-boggling” collection of food and resources in warehouses that “would put Walmart and Costco to shame.” The goal is to sustain most, if not all, Mormons in the event of a historic disaster. The “unrivaled preparedness” of the Mormon community should be an example for ordinary citizens, Koppel urged, especially in this new digital age.
Finally, Koppel reflected on the importance of the media industry in communicating life-saving information during times of crisis. The role of the media, Koppel argued, is to relay this information to a wide audience as quickly and accurately as possible. Nowadays, he sees the partisan gridlock in government infiltrating the news networks, and extreme position-taking corroding the mission of journalistic integrity. Koppel advocated that the media and the country as a whole need to get back to a point where “objectivity and seeking the facts is considered a worthwhile career.” He referred to how Walter Cronkite was considered the most trusted man in the America in the 1970s, and then asked the audience, “Imagine the suggestion that a journalist today would be accepted by people on the right and people on the left as being the most trusted man or woman in America? Not gonna happen.”
On a final note about cybersecurity, Koppel declared, “This is an issue that should not divide us on a partisan basis. This is not a conservative issue. This is not a liberal issue. Democrats and Republicans ought to be responding to this in the same fashion.”