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U.S. vulnerable to data sneak attack

A terrorist team would be able to do significant localized damage to the nation's systems, according to a recent war games simulation.

Margaret Kane Former Staff writer, CNET News
Margaret is a former news editor for CNET News, based in the Boston bureau.
Margaret Kane
2 min read
A group of hackers couldn't single-handedly bring down the United States' national data infrastructure, but a terrorist team would be able to do significant localized damage to U.S. systems, according to a recent war games simulation.

The United States Naval War College worked with Gartner Research to conduct a "digital Pearl Harbor" simulation last month, testing the U.S. response to attacks on telecommunications, the Internet, financial systems and the power grid. The analysts found that it would be possible to inflict some serious damage to the nation's data and physical infrastructure systems, but it would require a syndicate with significant resources, including $200 million, country-level intelligence and five years of preparation time.

The Internet would be a crucial conduit in attacking other national infrastructure systems, so much so that attacks on the Net would be left for last, so as not to interrupt other attacks. But most scenarios also required coordinated physical attacks on systems, the analysts said.

"The kinds of scenarios in which five hackers floating on a luxury liner in the Mediterranean bring down the entire infrastructure in the U.S.A. are pretty unlikely," said Richard Hunter, vice president and director of research at Gartner.

However, industries in the United States may have a tough time recovering from an attack because "in contrast to defenses that are there to protect the territory and people and property of the United States, for a digital Pearl Harbor we have no early warning systems," a Gartner analyst said. A digital Pearl Harbor would be a sneak attack on the nation's telecom networks and other infrastructure, including the power grid and financial systems.

"There is no organized response system for thwarting or responding to attacks. Enterprises are pretty much on their own for making sure they're prepared," said French Caldwell, vice president and research director at Gartner.

Gartner didn't release full results of the simulation, citing national security issues.