The Cybersecurity Threats of the 5G Era – No Bullets. No Swordfights. Just A Few Keystrokes On The Computer. And Shutting Down Our Power Grid And Enjoying The Resulting Chaos

There are a lot of discussion about the risks that the fifth generation of mobile networks (5G) can bring. From a technical point of view, in addition to higher exponential speeds, reduced latency and more flexible delivery of services, 5G networks can also lead to high cyber security risks.

The 5G technology will interconnect an impressive number of IoT (Internet of Things) devices that will work together to enhance comfort, productivity, safety and health. But these devices, in case of having vulnerabilities that can be exploited by cyber criminals, can be used against us.

National safety risks

The 5G networks will interconnect many systems in critical sectors, such as energy, transport, banking or healthcare. From this point of view, any 5G network vulnerability could be exploited to compromise both critical digital infrastructure and systems that are connected by this technology, with the risk of causing very serious damage.

There are state-actors that fund such attacks, targeting computer systems in critical areas. There have been such major cyber-attacks that have disrupted activity in:

  • The energy system (Ukraine, 2015 / Venezuela, 2019), when a power failure has affected hundreds of thousands of people;
  • The transport system (United States of America, 2019), when computers from the public transport network of San Francisco were affected;
  • The banking system (Estonia, 2007) when bank transfers were stopped and citizens were unable to withdraw money from ATMs;
  • The medical system (UK, 2017), when doctors could not operate patients because the databases had been encrypted.

Industrial control systems have been for long time in critical sectors, but their connection to the Internet is done with great caution, because the risks in the on-line environment are very high. Operators of these control systems know these risks and try to limit the exposure of these systems and, in many cases, they have not deliberately improved connectivity. Even so, not being externally connected, there have been cases in which control systems in nuclear power plants have been affected (Iran, 2010), when the velocity of centrifuges used for the production of enriched uranium could be controlled.

In poll after poll, one of the primary threats is the use of a cyber attack to cause a collapse of our vulnerable critical infrastructure. There are many bad actors on the international stage – Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and now the terrorist group. Each is capable of wreaking havoc in the US by shutting down our power grid and enjoying the resulting chaos.

No bombs. No bullets. No swordfights. Just a few keystrokes on the computer.

And we’re done.

Simply put, a Cyber Attack is a deliberate exploitation of computer systems. Cyber Attacks are used to gain access to information but can also be used to alter computer code, insert malware or take over the operations of a computer driven network.

Why would terrorists bother with an elaborate, dangerous physical operation—complete with all the recon and planning of a black ops mission — when they could achieve the same effect from the comfort of their home? An effective cyber attack could, if cleverly designed, produce a great deal of physical damage very quickly, and interconnections in digital operations would mean such an attack could bypass fail safes in the physical infrastructure that stop cascading failures.

One string of ones and zeroes could have a significant impact. If a computer hacker could command all the circuit breakers in a utility to open, the system will be overloaded. Power utility personnel sitting in the control room could do it. A proficient cyber-terrorist can do it as well. In fact, smart-grid technologies are more susceptible to common computer failures. New features added to make the system easily manageable might render it more vulnerable.

The very real threat posed to America by cyber warfare can be summarized by six central scenarios.
Over many decades, the U.S. has created the greatest military force the world has ever seen. But our research has proven that the biggest threat to national security comes from a computer with a simple Internet connection— not from aircraft carriers, tanks or drones.

Threats to the public sector

The U.S. government fends off a staggering eighty thousand cyber attacks a year. There is good reason Director of National Intelligence James Clapper ranks cyber terrorism as the number one national security threat, ahead of traditional terrorism, espionage and weapons of mass destruction.

While rogue nation-states are interested in causing damage to governments, for some hackers and cyber criminals, cyber intrusions in the form of theft of intellectual property, personal data, and website defacement is enough to keep them occupied. The FBI notified nearly four thousand U.S. companies that they were the victims of cyber attacks in 2014. Victims of hackers ranged from the financial sector to major defense contractors to online retailers.

Use of social media to issue threats and calls to action for terrorists

Social media has become a haven for cyber criminals and terrorists. As Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest have become an integral part of our lives, criminals now use these venues to commit cyber theft or as a method of communication for terrorists. Nearly one in three U.S. adults say one of their social media accounts has been compromised. Cyber security analysts believe ten to fifteen percent of home computers globally are already infected with viruses and malware.

Use of the cyber arena to spread propaganda to gain economic or military advantage

The Russians established a sophisticated propaganda machine under the supervision of its Internet Research Agency that waged a massive disinformation campaign in support for its annexation of Crimea and its invasion of Ukraine. These hired guns work hard, each one pumping out hundreds of comments and blog posts per shift. In addition, each hacktivist troll is reportedly required to post 50 news articles a day while maintaining half a dozen Facebook and more than ten Twitter accounts. It is not unusual for this machine to be used to gain a militaristic advantage as the Russians spread incorrect information throughout the online media.

Use of cyber attacks to conduct industrial espionage

While the Russians are notorious for gaining a military advantage through the use of cyber tactics, the Chinese are a determined bunch when comes to stealing valuable public and private sector trade secrets. The vast majority of America’s intellectual property theft is believed to originate from China. The Chinese employ elite hackers housed by the government throughout the world to mask their real affiliations. China’s goal has been to catch up with the U.S. in direct military strength.

The biggest threat: Collapse of the nation’s power grid

On July 8, 2015, Americans watched as trading was halted on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) floor. At the same time, computer reservation systems at United Airlines were down, and the Wall Street Journal newspaper computer networks crashed.

This was not a scene from your favorite author’s books of fiction; it was very real. According to reports, the interruption of the services mentioned was a mere coincidence, and the events were unrelated. These incidents and many more have raised public awareness of the vulnerability of our nation’s critical infrastructure.

How do we prepare?

Cybergeddon or World War C is not here yet, but it might be tomorrow. You never know when the day before—is the day before.

Under the most likely scenarios, the effects of a cyber war on most businesses are more likely to be disruptive than apocalyptic for two main reasons. Cyber intrusions can immobilize your business operations for hours and maybe days. Modern critical infrastructures tend to have enough built-in stop-gap measures and protections to prevent a cataclysmic crash of the entire power grid simultaneously or for an extended period.

However, the potential for a collapse of America’s power grid is what concerns preppers the most. The threats we face are many. For the United States, short of nuclear annihilation, the worst case scenario is an extended grid down collapse event.

Many preparedness consultants urge you to be ready for the plausible – natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, floods, earthquakes. We believe that a committed prepper is one who is ready for the worst-case-scenario, like a collapse of the critical infrastructure.

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