Unlike nuclear-capable countries, deadly hackers have fewer inhibitions. The idea that any incoming nuclear attack can be detected, and a retaliatory strike can easily be conducted, prevents the United States and Russia from launching nukes at either Moscow or Washington, D.C. Hackers, however, are much more difficult to pinpoint. Their digital footprints are very easy to disguise. With enough resources, a group of hackers can even trigger a nuclear grade cyber attack.
Nuclear grade – or nuclear rated – cyber attacks are the kind that, as their name suggests, can cause as much devastation as a nuclear strike. There are three scenarios when a nuclear grade cyber attack could happen.
Firstly, a nuclear grade cyber attack can develop slowly. One country might steal another's data. If the country that got attacked retaliates, it could cause a chain of retaliation that would expand the scope of the attacks and the toll they would cause on human life.
Secondly, a nation or a well-funded terrorist organization could launch a massive, destabilizing cyber attack. This destructive attack could target a nation's infrastructure, such as power grids, water treatment facilities or industrial plants. This would lead to a lot of people dying from a variety of reasons like corrupted traffic lights or a lack of power or gas for heating.
Thirdly, and perhaps most worryingly, a nuclear grade cyber attack could occur because of a simple mistake. A bug or an error in a nation's software and hardware might lead them to believe they are getting attacked and retaliate with full force, leading to the deaths of thousands – possibly millions – of people.
Cybersecurity and government watchdog groups have shown that not only is American infrastructure vulnerable to cyber attacks, but this vulnerability extends to the United State's weapons systems. (Related: U.S. cybersecurity experts scrambling to thwart major attacks on power, water, gas infrastructure by “bolting on” fixes to old vulnerable systems.)
America's crumbling infrastructure has been targeted before. In 2016, hackers attempted to change the chemical mixture used to purify water in a water treatment facility. If the change had not been noticed, people would have been poisoned. In June 2019, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) warned that a major hacking group with Russian ties was looking for vulnerabilities in the networks of electrical utilities.
To protect against a cyber attack, government, businesses and organizations and regular people need to make sure their systems are secured. One analysis found that only around a fifth of companies in the U.S. that use computers to control their industrial machinery monitor their equipment for potential cyber attacks.
You can also do your part to make your own data less vulnerable to hackers by taking some preventative steps. (h/t to LaTrobe.edu.au)
For more information about cybersecurity and America's vulnerability to a large-scale cyber attack, read up on the articles at CyberWar.news.