Keeping High-Tech Weaponry Safe from Hackers

September 20, 2018

Norse cyber attack

CC BY SA 2.0 Christiaan Colen

Introduction

When many modern high-tech weapons were developed, such as nuclear weapon systems,  computer capabilities were a fraction of what they are now. Few could have predicted the strides that computer development would make in the last few decades, nor understand exactly the vulnerabilities this progress would subsequently pose. But there are indeed security concerns with these high tech weapons, and these concerns are only compounded by the way digital technology is now used in nuclear command, control, and communication.

It’s crucial to understand the ways that high tech weapons are now at risk for hacking, and what the consequences of this kind of security breach might be. It is also equally as important to understand what measures can be taken in order to keep these high tech weapons secure and out of enemies’ hands.

Vulnerabilities

Understanding the vulnerabilities of high tech weapons systems is an essential first step toward protecting them. Human error, system failures, and design weakness are some of the most common security issues with high tech weapons systems. The weapons systems themselves are not the only target of concern: Communication systems for  these weapons may also be targeted using cyberattacks. Attackers may use data manipulation, digital jamming, or cyber spoofing to compromise communications and sow doubt in decision-making.

A prominent example of hackers exploiting vulnerabilities in the system comes from a large breach in 2013, when hackers (presumed to be from China) accessed top secret plans for over two dozen high-tech US weapons systems. According to a top U.S. military official, this leak saved China two decades of research and development, not to mention a huge advantage in any future conflicts. The hackers appeared to make use of “human engineering” — posing as innocuous companies and research institutes to harvest information.

As technology progresses, new vulnerabilities present themselves. There are sure to be new threats on the horizon that even experts haven’t predicted yet. Just look at drones: Even a decade ago, they were not as widespread as they are today. But with the spread of drone tech come ways to use them in data hacking — something that wasn’t a possibility when these data centers were built. It’s important to understand that cyber threats are ever evolving.

Risk

There are numerous risks associated with compromised high tech weaponry. Even in peacetime, a cyber attack could have implications for military decision-making and nuclear deterrence. And in times of heightened political tension, cyber offensives could cause a dramatic escalation — potentially causing these weapons to be used, though a compromised system should not be used.

Unfortunately, this risk doesn’t seem to be decreasing. In fact, nuclear war systems are actually increasingly vulnerable to hacking and other cyber attacks from hostile states and criminal groups. Rapid advances in technology combined with sluggish bureaucratic and institutional change has created a potent risk to high tech weapons systems. Digital aspects and security software can become quickly obsolete, and many state organizations are not adequately keeping up with relevant advances in technology.

This slowness to adjust extends to other national security issues beyond protecting high tech weapons. Cities are regularly the target of ransomware attacks that have the potential to someday disrupt or even cripple water, communications, electricity, or 911 access. Atlanta, Georgia was recently targeted by a hacking group aiming to extort money from the city that shut down the city’s computer system for days. Like many weapons systems, cities often have outdated security measures in place that make them a ripe target for hackers. Vulnerability to hacking by a hostile agent is a widespread issues not just limited to high tech weapons. Investment in cybersecurity infrastructure should be of concern not just to high ranking military officials, but also everyday citizens.

Prevention

A holistic approach is needed to help secure systems from cyber attacks. Any system should incorporate rigorous risk assessments as part of its defense measures.  Additionally, systems should also incorporate robust analyses of real-time threats and vulnerabilities.

Incorporating the private sector in military security is a double edged sword. On one hand, this area is more nimble and is better able to keep track of technological advances than government agencies. On the other, the more organizations that are involved in security of these systems, the more points of vulnerability exist.

Newer technology is a solution, but comes with new concerns. For example, artificial intelligence is a promising new frontier for cybersecurity. But the complexity of this kind of technology adds further points of exploitation for hackers. More research and understanding of both the potential for these weapons and their vulnerability is needed.

Conclusion

The threats to high tech weapons like nuclear systems from cyber attack are real and growing. Technology (that can be abused by bad faith actors) has quickly outpaced the security measures that exist, as evidenced by past large-scale breaches (such as the 2013 Chinese cyber attack). It is imperative that the military and other branches of government — including municipal — invest in research and development of security measures for the quickly evolving technology of the twenty first century. Robust, comprehensive and adaptive systems are needed to achieve national security.

 

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