Military gears up to defend U.S. against cyber-attack

November 7, 2012 11:44:51 PM PST
The next attack on the United States may be an invisible one, but the consequences could be very real. The military is gearing up to defend the nation against an attack in cyberspace.

An attack in cyberspace could cause a real world catastrophe. In the movies, this would be a job for Bruce Willis, but in the real world, America's turned to someone decidedly more soft-spoken.

"Our country is exceptionally vulnerable to cyber-attacks," computer science professor Cynthia Irvine said.

Irvine is acting on orders that come straight from the top. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said an attack on America's computer systems could be a modern-day Pearl Harbor.

"If a cyber-attack crippled our power grid in this country, took down the financial systems, took down our government systems, that that would constitute an act of war," has Panetta said.

Though she may not look like a drill sergeant, Irvine is tasked with teaching men and women in uniform how to do battle in cyberspace, a domain that until recently has been dominated by anonymous civilian hackers.

"We don't want civilian vigilantes going out like Mad Max or something and pushing the button and declaring war on some other country and building weapons," Irvine said.

So under direction from the National Security Agency, Irvine and her colleagues at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey created a new master's degree program that's only for military officers.

One goal of the new program is to teach officers to think about cyber operations strategically -- the same way they might think about an operation in the air, on the ground or at sea. One of the teaching tools is a computer game that simulates real world cyber threats and defensive measures.

Research associate Mike Thompson showed ABC7 News CyberCIEGE -- a simulator developed at the Naval Postgraduate School that's now being made available to other schools. Students will learn to defend against malware like Trojan horses and in some cases to build it.

"We have classes on reverse engineering so that if we have a piece of malware, we are able to dissect it, take it apart and find out what it did to us; we also have a class called Advanced Cyber Munitions, which is a classified class," Irvine said.

Building cyber munitions is something the U.S is already rumored to be involved in with the discovery of a pair of computer viruses -- Flame and Stuxnet.

In the case of Stuxnet for example, it was written we believe by the U.S. and or Israel to go and damage centrifuges that were being used in Iran to...in the production of nuclear materials," cryptography expert Paul Kocher said.

Kocher says it may mark the first time a computer virus has done physical damage to a country's infrastructure but certainly not the last.

"Every year, the number of systems connected grows, the number of networked devices grows, the amount of information grows, and with those will come new vulnerabilities," he said.

Vulnerabilities that the U.S. military will now be better equipped to patch or exploit.


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