September 03, 2012, 9:40 PM — For most people, hackers and malware are nefarious entities intent on compromising their PCs and mobile devices, and perhaps stealing some login credentials or financial details. A successful attack can be quite frustrating,--or even devastating--on a personal level, but nobody gets killed and the world goes on.
When it comes to the critical infrastructure of the nation, though, the stakes get higher. The critical infrastructure is called "critical" for a reason. An executive order signed by President Clinton in 1996 defines "critical infrastructure" as: "Certain national infrastructures are so vital that their incapacity or destruction would have a debilitating impact on the defense or economic security of the United States."
The critical infrastructure includes things like the electrical power grid, natural gas and petroleum pipelines, nuclear power facilities, water treatment plants, railways and highways. A successful attack that destroyed or shut down any of these things for a significant amount of time could wreak havoc on the nation.
The SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems that drive and control much of the critical infrastructure are archaic, legacy systems that are simply not designed with security in mind. SCADA systems used to be on separate, isolated networks that provided some inherent degree of security by obscurity. As these legacy systems are connected to and managed through the Internet, though, they are increasingly at risk.
Richard Clarke, former White House advisor on cyber security, has expressed concerns over evidence that China is actively probing and hacking the United States power grid. Clarke pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, "The only point to penetrating the grid's controls is to counter American military superiority by threatening to damage the underpinning of the U.S. economy. Chinese military strategists have written about how in this way a nation like China could gain an equal footing with the militarily superior United States."
Clark isn't the only one sounding the alarm. Security experts have been pointing out the inherent weaknesses of the nation's critical infrastructure for years.