Is the US Ready for the Next Cyber Terror Attack?

Ian Blodger, MJLST Staff Member

The US’s military intervention against ISIL carries with it a high risk of cyber-terror attacks. The FBI reported that ISIL and other terrorist organizations may turn to cyber attacks against the US in response to the US’s military engagement of ISIL. While no specific targets have been confirmed, likely attacks could result in website defacement to denial of service attacks. Luckily, recent cyber terror attacks attempting to destabilize the US power grid failed, but next time we may not be so lucky. Susan Brenner’s recent article, Cyber-threats and the Limits of Bureaucratic Control, published in the Minnesota Journal of Law Science and Technology volume 14 issue 1, describes the structural reasons for the US’s vulnerabilities to cyber attacks, and offers one possible solution to the problem.

Brenner argues that the traditional methods of investigation do not work well when it comes to cyber attacks. This ineffectiveness results from the obscured origin and often hidden underlying purpose of the attack, both of which are crucial in determining whether a law enforcement or military response is necessary. The impairment leads to problems assessing which agency should control the investigation and response. A nation’s security from external attackers depends, in part, on its ability to present an effective deterrent to would be attackers. In the case of cyber attacks, however, the US’s confusion on which agency should respond often precludes an efficient response.

Brenner argues that these problems are not transitory, but will increase in direct proportion to our reliance on complex technology. The current steps taken by the US are unlikely to solve the issue since they do not address the underlying problem, instead continuing to approach cyber terrorists as conventional attackers. Concluding that top down command structures are unable to respond effectively to the treat of cyber attacks, Brenner suggests a return to a more primitive mode of defense. Rather than trusting the government to ensure the safety of the populace, Brenner suggests citizens should work with the government to ensure their own safety. This decentralized approach, modeled on British town defenses after the fall of the Roman Empire, may avoid the ineffective pitfalls of the bureaucratic approach to cyber security.

There are some issues with this proposed model for cyber security, however. Small British towns during the early middle ages may have been able to ward off attackers through an active citizen based defense, but the anonymity of the internet makes this approach challenging when applied to a digitized battlefield. Small British towns were able to easily identify threats because they knew who lived in the area. The internet, as Brenner concedes, makes it difficult to determine to whom any given person pays allegiance. Presumably, Brenner theorizes that individuals would simply respond to attacks on their own information, or enlist the help of others to fed off attacks. However, the anonymity of the internet would mean utter chaos in bolstering a collective defense. For example, an ISIL cyber terrorist could likely organize a collective US citizen response against a passive target by claiming they were attacked. Likewise, groups utilizing pre-emptive attacks against cyber terrorist organizations could be disrupted by other US groups that do not recognize the pre-emptive cyber strike as a defensive measure. This simply shows that the analogy between the defenses of a primitive British town and the Internet is not complete.

Brenner may argue that her alternative simply calls for current individuals, corporations, and groups to build up their own defenses and protect themselves from impending cyber threats. While this approach would avoid the problems inherent in a bureaucratic approach, it ignores the fact that these groups are unable to protect themselves currently. Shifting these groups’ understanding of their responsibility of self defense may spur innovation and increase investment in cyber protection, but this will likely be insufficient to stop a determined cyber attack. Large corporations like Apple, JPMorgan, Target, and others often hemorrhage confidential information as a result of cyber attacks, even though they have large financial incentives to protect that information. This suggests that an individualized approach to cyber protection would also likely fail.

With the threat of ISIL increasing, it is time for the United States to take additional steps to reduce the threat of a cyber terror attack. At this initial stage, the inefficiencies of bureaucratic action will result in a delayed response to large-scale cyber terror attacks. While allowing private citizens to band together for their own protection may have some advantages over government inefficiency, this too likely would not solve all cyber security problems.