Inside the Ring: Cybercom sounds alarm on infrastructure attacks

The commander of the U.S. Cyber Command warned Congress this week that Russia and China now can launch crippling cyberattacks on the electric grid and other critical infrastructures.

The commander of the U.S. Cyber Command warned Congress this week that Russia and China now can launch crippling cyberattacks on the electric grid and other critical infrastructures.

“We remain vigilant in preparing for future threats, as cyberattacks could cause catastrophic damage to portions of our power grid, communications networks and vital services,” Adm. Mike Rogers, the Cyber Command chief, told a Senate hearing. “Damaging attacks have already occurred in Europe,” he stated, noting suspected Russian cyberattacks that temporarily turned out the lights in portions of Ukraine.

Adm. Rogers said that unlike other areas of military competition, Russia is equal to the United States in terms its cyberwarfare capabilities, with China a close second.

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The four-star admiral, who also heads the National Security Agency, said cyberwarfare “is one area we have to acknowledge that we have peer competitors who have every bit as much capacity and capability as we do.”

Russia, China, Iran and North Korea pose the greatest nation-state threats in cyberspace, and the Islamic State is mainly using cyber programs to recruit terrorists and propagandize, but could turn to cyberattacks against infrastructures in the future.

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“The Russians I would consider in cyber a pure competitor,” Adm. Rogers said. “China is not in the same place, but rapidly attempting to get there.”

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Iran’s cyberattack capabilities also are increasing. “They’re increasing their investment, they’re increasing their level of capability,” Adm. Rogers said.

North Korea conducted a sophisticated cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014 but has not launched a similar attack since.

Adm. Rogers told lawmakers his greatest concern is the “physical shutdown” of networks used for communications and logistics. A second major worry is cyber penetrations into critical military networks to manipulate data to provide false or misleading information that would cause warfighters to make disastrous decisions.

Most military operations involve the use of commercial infrastructure and thus their vulnerabilities to cyberattacks are a major concern.

“If you were able to take that away or materially impact the ability to manage an air traffic control system, to manage the overhead [satellite] structure and the flow of communications or data, for example, that would materially impact [the Defense Department’s] ability to execute its mission — let alone the broader economic impact for us as a nation,” Adm. Rogers said.

Most recent hostile cyber intrusions have been to steal data or conduct reconnaissance for future attacks.

“What happens if the purpose of the intrusion becomes to manipulate the data, and so you can no longer believe what you are seeing?” he asked. “Think about the implications of that. If you couldn’t trust the military picture that you were looking at, that you’re using it to base decisions on, and let alone, the broader economic impacts for us as a nation.”

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