Cyber Hurricane Katrina

The Foreign Policy Research Institute recently held a webinar on Why “Cyber Pearl Harbor” Won’t Be Like Pearl Harbor At All…
I listened in.
[What follows is extracted from this storify post]

First: I expressed some skepticism at the flashy premise of the webinar, as WWII metaphors are a tad overdone in security circles



The webinar opened with a lecture/powerpoint by Edward Turzanksi, whose name I finally got right on the 10th try. He started describing in some detail the different direct impacts of Pearl Harbor & 9/11, and of US immediate response…

…then immediately broke from the flashy title to point out that cyber is very different from conventional war.

The answer to why Cyber isn’t just signals intelligence? Cyber can directly attack infrastructure, not just communications.

a bit unfair of me here.^ Cyber attacks, as described for this presentation, have a political goal. Criminal networks don’t; disruptive though they may be, they are less about attacking states and instead focus on being left alone by them.

Using carpet bombing to describe cyber will always be a stretch, but the actual point of infrastructure being targeted at war holds.

the book described above? Unrestricted Warfare, published in 1999 but featuring a very misleading cover depicting the 9/11 attacks.

Of course, STUXNET itself played with gradual disruption, but the way this was described reminded me of nothing so much as this.


that clip? Children stomping bugs from Starship Troopers. Turzanski actually recommended stomping unknown flash drives as a way to stop them creating/exploiting vulnerabilities. I recommend we term this “boot-gapping.”

Shamoon was targeted specifically at Aramco, and was apparently the work of amateurs.

Husick addressed this later, noting that the invisible hand is really bad at addressing vulnerabilities present in the commons.

The actual problem here was not Windows software itself, which can update and be corrected, but that pirated/unlicensed Windows systems are paygapped from those updates despite those unauthorized copies being, according to Turzanski, 40% of operating systems. Here is a direct example of private sector poorly correcting a vulnerability opened up in the commons.

That above link is to a piece written for CTOVision, about how old-fashioned detective work, human intelligence, and boots on the ground caught a hacker who hid himself well online. Boots & detectives aren’t a quality we usually think of for countering cyber, but they absolutely should be.


The possibility of Estonia invoking NATO Article V for a cyber attack was brought up. Estonia has a stronger claim to this than most – incredibly tech-dependent and was clearly under a coordinated cyber attack. But incredibly unlikely anyone will start a shooting war over it, which calls into the question of cyberwar as a concept itself.

as a post-K New Orleans resident for four years, this metaphor seemed to match what I learned of people’s experience: misplaced investment, clear vulnerabilities shoved just a bit too hard, and then a long slow rebuilding in the directly-damaged area with unclear revision to response capability or actual resilience. A clear failure, but a contained failure.

That was not the actual answer. I paraphrased for space constraints, but the gist was the same.

Here an example was given of a 2003 rail failure, as one freight company linked it’s operational control computers to the internet proper and subsequently suffered a malware attack that left them blind, stranding all trains east of the Rockies for I believe he said 13 hours.

Redteaming: it works.

Maybe bootgapping is a viable strategy?Next we went to the Q & A, which was surprisingly infomative, despite it being a Q & A session.

Also mentioned in the response above was a modified nuke designed to EMP. Either would destroy solid-state drives, making it a destructive attack for which kinetics are a perfectly appropriate response, but also outside the realm of cyber security proper. This seems like the fundamental problem with terming Cyber things cyberwar – when they clearly cause war-like damage, that’s just war. When they don’t, they are crime or covert action. “Cyberwar” seems to be so thin a line that it is nonexistent.

Besides responding with overwhelming force, Farraday cages are a way to protect something from an EMP. Here’s instructions on a DIY version.

As a category, dark web is just what can’t be found conventionally online. In the above context, it refers to internet channels that won’t be effected if something like Google goes down.

The tragedy of the cyber commons was alluded to earlier – it makes little economic sense for anyone using the commons to devote resources to securing it from cyber attacks, and is especially unlikely for everyone to do so at once. (The second part of that tweet? Academia tangent: Mark Vail was a former professor of mine, whose work focused a lot on how European welfare states sought to solve the problems of the commons)


This lack of motivation to fix the problem is perhaps the best reason to start using “Cyber Hurricane Katrina” instead of “Cyber Pearl Harbor.”

It’s really, really hard to negotiate an arms treaty (of sorts) or a rule of battlefield ethics (which is what this would be) when the arms are rapidly evolving, can be designed and wielded by nonstate actors, and the actual battlespace is as broadly defined as any computer that could potentially be exposed to an attack. Compounding this are nations justifiably wanting to develop weapons in secret. My guess for a Cyber Geneva Convention? Only after a major problem reveals them to be both deadlier and less useful than anyone wants, like post-WWI chemical weapons.

Husick specifically mentioned that Saudi would label Pat Robertson’s website itself a work of cyber war. Layer that on top of the problems already expounded above, and Cyber Geneva Convention seems nigh-impossible.

Here we should be looking at cyber as covert action/spycraft/crime, where the channels of communication are important to maintain. The follow-up to this was that the US might expect cyber attacks on our allies, as China is less worried about severing economic ties with them. And, yes, the continued ability to steal US intellectual property was given as a reason for why China would not cyber-attack the US.

This led really well into the next point – STUXNET was able to disrupt Iranian centrifuges in a way that made Iran question it’s own equipment until they figured out, months and months and months later and after actually sitting around watching the centrifuges, that it was a virus at work.

Point referenced here is one from Gartenstein-Ross’s book Bin Laden’s Legacy, and very subtly illustrated by the burning dollar bill on the cover. An attack that yields a massively disproportionate expenditure in response is one that has succeeded in causing economic harm, whatever else it’s objective.

About kdatherton

International Relations speculation
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