Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Vulnerability of a Knight Without Armor

The past speaks to us in a thousand voices, warning and comforting, animating and stirring to action. - Felix Adler

History is a vast early warning system. - Norman Cousins

The #1206 “fiction” series continues …


The President of the United States, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secretary of Defense and numerous technology and business advisors sat around a boardroom deep within the White House, listening intently to the presenter who stood at the head of the table.

“And so it is our conclusion”, the presenter said as he nervously spoke to the powerful audience before him, “That the numerous outages we are experiencing in the telecom industry, in the banking industry and in our infrastructure, including electricity generation, appear to be coming as a result of cyber attack efforts emanating from a single country.”

“And why do these things keep happening?”, asked the President, “Why can’t we prevent such attacks?”

“Well, Mr. President”, the presenter said, “No matter what security defences we create, including air gaps between our technology and the outside world and various other technology implementations that are too complex to be described here, we keep being undermined by the weakest link of all ….. ourselves.”

“What is that supposed to mean”, snapped the President.  He often got frustrated by people who spoke in riddles or in vague terms without getting straight to the point.

“Well, sir”, stammered the presenter, “While we have lockdowns against people bringing unsecure items into our environment, many employees and contractors continue to either ignore our recommendations for securing our technology, including laptops and tablets, or they bring in devices like USB sticks and other things that are often compromised with viruses and worms designed to attack our technology.”

He paused for a moment before continuing.  “In fact, Mr. President”, he said, “We believe that there is a concerted effort to target our people specifically, with intent to contaminate their personal technology, including phones, laptops and such, so that the contamination will ultimately bypass our security measures and undermine our own equipment.  Such contamination puts our infrastructure at risk, with the risk ranging from occasional difficulties to complete failure.”

“Is that all?”, asked the President.

“No sir”, replied the presenter, “We believe the attacks are accelerating both in frequency and intensity.  The intended outcome of the attacks is clear although the reason for them is unknown.”

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs cleared his throat and interrupted the presenter.  “Cyber attacks against the Pentagon are also escalating, Mr. President.  I had some of my people check into these attacks and we have discovered serious vulnerabilities within our defence systems that we will need to neutralize as soon as we can.”

“Vulnerabilities?”, asked the President as his brow furrowed in concern.

“Yes, sir”, replied the Chairman, “I don’t want to get into them in mixed company but will make sure that the salient points are in your briefing notes for tomorrow morning.”

“And why aren’t you fixing them now?”, asked the President, “I take little comfort hearing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs tell me so lackadaisically that we have serious vulnerabilities in our defense system that we need to fix.  I would hope that we are addressing them immediately.”

“That is true, Mr. President”, replied the Chairman, “However, Congress seems intent on holding up the funding that we need to put the changes in place.  We appear to have become distracted by anti terror measures while other areas of risk to the nation are being downgraded to secondary in risk potential.”

“And what could happen if those vulnerabilities are exploited?”, asked the President, starting to feel a sense of annoyance, anger and apprehension growing within him.

“I’d rather discuss that in private, Mr. President”, replied the Chairman.

“If I may”, interjected the presenter, “For as bad as all of these things sound, we believe that such attacks are a red herring or a distraction from something more significant when it comes to our national security.  In fact, we believe that our greatest vulnerability is ……”

The Secretary of Defense cut him off.  “We will decide where we believe our vulnerabilities are and what the risks are”, he snapped, “You may sit down now.”

The presenter hung his head, mumbled “yes sir” and sat down at the end of the table.

The President looked down the table at the men and women seated before him.

“So what should we do now?”, he asked.

A cacophony of voices erupted in the meeting room.

The President raised his hands to calm the explosion of opinions.


Thousands of miles away, in a control center lit only by the plethora of computer monitors, two military officers stared at the screens before them.

“Our intelligence indicates that we were able to disable the military defense systems on several American bases this month”, said the junior officer.

“Good”, smiled the senior officer, “While the Americans get distracted with our cyber attacks on their infrastructure and banking systems, our focus on the primary target remains undeterred.”

“And the American consulting firm that has caught on to our intention?”, asked the junior officer, “I understand that one of their representatives is briefing the President today.”

“I believe that he and his family are about to experience a devastating fire in their home”, said the senior officer tersely, “A terrible accident.  Such a shame when smart people meet a tragic end.”

“I see”, said the junior officer,  “And when will we be ready to launch?”

“Very soon”, replied the senior officer, “The Americans are months if not years away from hardening their infrastructure thanks to an ineffective Congress, politicians who are unwilling to admit the truth to their own people for fear of inciting panic and an ego that says “we are invulnerable”.  Their war on terror has gripped them while causing them to lose sight of other national security concerns.  Meanwhile, greed has proven to be a powerful Trojan horse for us as we continue to get our components in place within their own secure installations.”

“What would our leaders think of this?”, asked the junior officer, “We do not have their permission.”

The senior officer grunted and turned to face his junior officer.  “We are restoring the glory to our nation that our leaders talk a lot about but do very little to implement”, he said, “It is up to us to restore the dream of greatness for our nation.”

“And when it is time to deploy”, asked the junior officer, “what happens then?”

“On that great day”, replied the senior officer, “Our missiles will soar and the Americans will discover that for some reason, their defense systems will not work as designed.”

He smiled as he paused.

“On that day”, he continued, “Our glory as the greatest nation on earth will be manifest to all.”

He turned and looked back at the monitors before him as the conversation turned to silence.

To be continued.


© 2015 – Harry Tucker – All Rights Reserved

Background

There is so much information that I could write here but for most people it would be too intense, too dry, too academic or too frightening.

Our government and military installations are routinely probed, attacked and yes, compromised by foreign government agencies.  Such compromises have occurred many times.

Senior US government officials publicly refer to the inevitability of a successful cyber attack against our infrastructure and potentially against our defense systems as a “when” and not an “if”.

If such things are a “when” and not an “if”, what are we doing to demand better accountability and transparency from our elected officials as well as better efforts to secure our technology?

Because if we don’t secure it soon, it won’t matter.

Humans have their weaknesses after all and included in those weaknesses are ego that tells us that we are untouchable, greed that undermines the most advanced security arrangements, complacence that tells us that we always have plenty of time to address issues and fear of what the populace would do should such truths be revealed to them.

A nuclear arsenal that exists gets used eventually by one side or the other … either by the nations that own them or by rogue elements within them.  Advisors and senior military officials that I have spoken to describe events that have brought us close to nuclear annihilation more times than the public are aware of.  Not only is there a threat of our defence systems being disabled as described here, there is also the threat that our own defence systems may be used against us.  Meanwhile, our war on terror has proven to be a great distraction from other important areas of national defence in terms of fear propagation, difficulties in balancing civilian freedom versus security, alleged solutions and the cost of implementing such solutions.

Whether the existence of such weapons acts as a deterrent or not depends on whether or not the deterrent is actually working.  After all, a knight without armor is just as vulnerable as any man.

So is it better to have a deterrent to such a threat or to remove the threat itself from all sides?

The question becomes:

Are we capable of doing the right thing by destroying such weapons once and for all or do we insist on living in the land of make believe, with the belief that we can have such weapons without ever being tempted to use them?

While people say that it is impossible to “go first” when it comes to dismantling such arsenals, that is merely an excuse to not begin.  If it mattered enough to people, we would find a way.

Meanwhile the safety of you and your family is threatened by the mere existence of such weapons and the decisions of a select few who play Russian roulette with our very existence every day.

I think we can and must demand better of ourselves and the officials who allegedly work in our best interests.

What do you think?

What do you want to do about it?

What should you do about it?

What are you waiting for?

Series Origin

This series, a departure from my usual musings, is inspired as a result of conversations with former senior advisors to multiple Presidents of the United States, senior officers in the US Military and other interesting folks as well as my own professional background as a Wall St. / Fortune 25 strategy and large-scale technology architect.

While this musing is just “fiction” and a departure from my musings on technology, strategy, politics and society, as a strategy guy, I do everything for a reason and with a measurable outcome in mind. :-)

This “fictional” musing is a continuation of the #1206 series noted here.