In a speech last night aboard the USS Intrepid in New York, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned a meeting of Business Executives for National Security about the cyber challenges the United States faces.
“A cyber attack perpetrated by nation states or violent extremist groups could be as destructive as the terrorist attack of 9/11,” Panetta said. “Such a destructive cyber terrorist attack could paralyze the nation.”
Panetta recalled a recent attack against the Saudi Arabian state oil company ARAMCO caused by a computer virus known as “Shamoon” that he described as “probably the most destructive attack that the private sector has seen to date.” In that attack, Secretary Panetta said, the virus self-executed itself and “replaced crucial system files with an image of a burning U.S. flag. It also put additional ‘garbage’ data that overwrote all the real data on the machine. The more than 30,000 computers it infected were rendered useless, and had to be replaced.”
The challenges create a “profound new sense of vulnerability,” Panetta noted. “An aggressor nation or extremist group could gain control of critical switches and derail passenger trains, or trains loaded with lethal chemicals,” he said. “They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”
To learn more about America’s cyber challenges, check out CNAS’s Election 2012 National Security Guide to the Presidential Election.