How Cyberattacks on Critical Infrastructure Could Cause Real-Life Disasters

Should we really be worried about a “Cyber Pearl Harbor”?

|
Aug 16 2016, 9:41pm

Image: Peretz Partensky/Flickr

In October 11, 2012, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned of the impending dangers of a digital Pearl Harbor, a cyberattack that targeted critical infrastructure and caused real, physical damage.

Since then, others have sounded the alarm bells of a cyberattack on infrastructure. Yet, other than the Stuxnet attack on an Iranian nuclear power plant, and a blackout enabled by a malware infection in Ukraine, there are very few examples of cyberattacks whose effects have spilled beyond the digital world.

Security experts seem to agree that the threat is real—though highly misunderstood—and yet squirrels cause far more problems to the energy grid than hackers. But the fact that infrastructure attacks don't seem to happen very often doesn't mean they are not possible. Critical infrastructure, many agree, is highly vulnerable.

"It is remarkably easy to just mess with the temperature someplace in a natural gas plant and catch the entire plant on fire," Meredith Patterson, a information security expert, said.

We tried to figure out what are the real risks of a "cyber Pearl Harbor" attack, and made a water bottle explode in the process, in this week's CYBERWAR episode. You can watch it on VICELAND on Tuesday, at 10:30 PM ET. Meanwhile, read some of Motherboard's best articles about infrastructure hacking: