Computer-savvy crooks constantly probe America's premier financial institutions. The new generation of safecrackers doesn't need dynamite or drills, but uses digital tricks that include breaking encrypted codes (like passwords) or inserting Trojan horses, worms and other computer viruses into the information systems of banks and investment firms.
American defense systems are also vulnerable. Given America's reliance on computers and digital data links, this means weapons, weapons delivery platforms (e.g., airplanes), intelligence systems (satellites) and communications systems, from tactical radios to global strategic systems, face a digital threat.
Filching video from American Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) operating over Iraq and elsewhere serves as an example of a type of cyber-theft. StrategyPage.com pointed out last Dec. 18 why Predator video feeds could be intercepted using off-the-shelf programs for stealing commercial television satellite transmission. "(S)ometimes, you take a chance," StrategyPage observed. "And then you get caught. For years, the video from UAV was unencrypted. This was to save communications capacity ("bandwidth"), which was always in short supply. To encrypt the video would require more bandwidth, and specialized equipment on the UAVs and ground receivers. ... This was not a secret, it was known to people in the business. Now everyone knows, and encryption, and all its costs, will be added to UAV video broadcasts."
StrategyPage noted this was not a "hack" to the Predator's digital controls, but akin to electronic eavesdropping or tapping a telephone. However, the prospect of taking over the computers running an aircraft or commo system -- or, in the civilian sector, a city's electrical grid -- concerns cyber-warriors.
The U.S. military believes digital communications systems capable of creating "shared situational awareness" are critical to 21st century modernization. "Shared situational awareness" is Pentagonese for letting soldiers know where they are located, where friendly forces are positioned and what the enemy is doing. A digital system connecting infantrymen, tanks, helicopters, aircraft and ships would permit soldiers to share real-time intelligence, find the best defensive position or select the best available weapon to strike the enemy.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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