Technology, Terrorism and Modern Conflict

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The following was published in today’s Seacoast Sunday.

I attended two meetings this week that highlight the dark side of technology. The first was the monthly FBI InfraGard meeting of the New Hampshire Chapter and the second a technology industry gathering at which Frank Abagnale, of “Catch Me if You Can” fame, delivered the keynote.

The FBI InfraGard is a partnership between the FBI and private industry designed to ensure timely information sharing to help protect the public and critical infrastructure like hospitals, public safety agencies and the electric grid. This month’s meeting was held in conjunction with the Cybersecurity Days program put on by the Manchester Community College.

A detective from the New Hampshire State Police Intelligence Division gave a presentation on digital forensics, the science of collecting digital evidence related to the commission of crimes. These may be financial crimes, crimes against children or others or related to terrorism.

There was also a presentation on electromagnetic pulse. An EMP is a burst of electromagnetic energy that can be focused on a specific target in a narrow or wide field of impact. EMP is often associated as an outcome of a nuclear detonation. Air Force One, as an example, is widely believed to be hardened against the effects of EMP as are many military installations.

We were shown EMP demonstrations to understand how it works and its impact. The impact could wipe out the electric grid in a radius as wide as the Mid-Atlantic, up through New England into southern Canada and the Midwest. One of the experts who presented suggested the real concern with the current situation with North Korea is not so much about it being able to deliver a nuclear weapon via an intercontinental ballistic missile to the continental United States, but the far more probable risk it would be able to put a nuclear weapon onto a low-earth orbit satellite and detonate it over the United States, delivering an EMP that could knock critical infrastructure offline.
Abagnale shares these concerns and others. This is the second time I have heard him speak. The first was approximately 10 years ago. His personal story remains captivating and impressive. If you are not familiar with his story, visit www.abagnale.com and Google his name. I think you’ll be fascinated by his story. Check out the free resources he makes available as well. There are valuable recommendations, checklists and information resources to help you protect your personal identity and credit from fraud.
Abagnale shared his belief that we are in a transitional time. Transitional in that cybercrime is shifting from financial crimes to terrorism and cyber warfare. One reference point for his concern is the data breach that hit the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management. Abagnale has worked for the FBI for more than four decades, so his comments have significant credibility and are based on what he is able to speak about. Specifically, he noted the OPM breach was carried out by the Chinese military. It is his belief this was an exercise to test its offensive cyber warfare capabilities and it is now in possession of more than 21 million OPM records and some 10 million fingerprints of federal employees, including members of the military and intelligence services.

He also talked about testing the FBI has completed where it was able to shut down or alter the speed of a pacemaker from a distance of 35 feet. Using similar technology, it also successfully shut down a moving vehicle, deployed its airbags and locked the operator inside the vehicle. This was done at relatively close distance. His concern is that we are a few years away from these same acts being possible from thousands of miles away, thus becoming a terrorist weapon and method of modern warfare.

Technology brought incredible advances for humankind, but not without serious risk. Examples like these and data breaches point to the most pressing need we have as a nation, education. We must find ways to better prepare our younger generations while protecting our older ones. Technology is an amazing tool, but if not used properly, it may expose you to unintended risk.
Eight years ago, I testifies to a sub-committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on a panel discussing information security. I had a tense exchange with a congressman from California about the fact there is no technology that can prevent a human being from making an error that could cause a cyber security event. Let’s just say he did not agree with my position. Eight years later, I heard Abagnale say technology will never be able to defeat social engineering online. He contends, as do I, that only education can defeat social engineering.

Technology users must understand the risks and realize the data they handle, personally or professionally, must be treated with utmost care. You cannot trust every email you receive or every website you visit. You must use robust defenses and more importantly, educate yourself on risks you will be exposed to and understand what you should do to avoid them and how to quickly and thoroughly respond if needed.
I love technology and it’s unfortunate there are forces at work to use it to inflict harm on innocent victims. Sadly, this is true of many advances in human history. My hope is that this will help you avoid falling victim to cyber criminals and understand the new threats we face as a nation. As I often say, stay safe online!

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