Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What Happens When the Enemy Steals the Keys?

"The technology got stronger and we got weaker," that's how the protagonist in the upcoming video game Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 describes the status of the U.S. military circa 2025. What is intended to be a work of fiction may in fact be a glimpse into the future.

Since the beginning of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars the U.S. military has become increasingly dependent on unmanned drones to carry out strike missions.  Most recently the White House took credit for taking out Al Qaeda's number 2 in Yemen through one of these drone strikes.  In a move that is alarming some Americans, the government is beginning a program that would allow the use of drones over U.S. soil.

Currently these unmanned drones are operated by humans out of military bases in the U.S.  However, a new breed of completely robotic drones is currently undergoing development and testing.  One robotic drone being tested by Boeing has a wing span the equivalent of a 757 and is capable of flying at altitudes of 65,000 feet making it virtually invisible to people on the ground.  The Phantom, as it is called, carries enough fuel to remain airborne for four days and is equipped with most advanced surveillance gear.

Aside from the negative affects these drones have by removing the human factor from war, they present a real danger to security.  In late 2009, it was discovered that Iraqi insurgents had been able to tap into the video feeds being broadcast for predator drones.  This information allowed America's enemies to get crucial information about what the military may be targeting or surveilling. Even more alarming, the insurgents were able to breach predator drone security with an off-the-shelf software product that costs just $25.

In 2011, international news was made when it was revealed that a super secret stealth drone had crashed in Iran.  The president was quick to demand Iran return the drone. As alarming as it was that new stealth and drone technology was now in the hands of one of the country's biggest enemies, but it was later revealed the drone had not crashed, it had been hacked into by the Iranian military and flown into Iran.

One of the biggest scandals to hit America's defense infrastructure occurred when it was learned that literally thousands of weapon and surveillance systems had been equipped with counterfeit computer chips.  These chips, which originated in China, may be capable of providing back doors into defense systems.  They may also be used to send information such as the location of weapons back to China.

Most Americans and their legislatures have yet to wake up to the potential threat of cyber warfare. Fortunately, a string of recent news revolving around three major computer viruses are changing all that.  Duqu, Stuxnet, and Flame are the names of three viruses that the security firm Kaspersky Labs claims were created by the same people. The viruses were found in systems operating inside Iran, including systems that are part of their controversial nuclear program.  Kaspersky's experts say these viruses were developed some years back and were so advanced for their time that they fear what those virus creators might be putting out there now.

According to the NYTimes, who credited White House insiders, these viruses were created by the U.S. government in a project that started under the Bush administration and was accelerated under Obama's.  While it's comforting to know these particular bugs are working for us and not against us, it also sheds light on the very real danger of cyber attacks.  More than just a danger to our power and nuclear infrastructure, as the past has shown, these cyber threats pose a real danger to national security.  Should our enemies get their hands on the keys to our drones and other robotic systems the resulting devastation could make 9-11 look like a cake walk.

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