Back in 1983, the world was a simpler place. The economy looked healthy, there were only four channels on British TV — and, if you believed Hollywood at least, the biggest threat to world security was a pimply teenager with a computer.
Matthew Broderick’s turn in the film WarGames, as a nerdy kid who accidentally blunders into a highly classified computer system that controls the US nuclear arsenal and proceeds to take the world to the brink of nuclear war, didn’t win many awards. But it made its mark on millions of people around the world — and introduced us to the stereotype of the precocious young hacker.
The film plugged into every paranoid Star Wars fantasy from the Reagan era, but now it is unlikely to elicit more than a snigger. The prospect of a cyberwar launched by someone too young to drink is, frankly, ridiculous. Isn’t it?
In fact, the implications of a cyberwar are being carefully considered by intelligence chiefs in Britain and around the Western world right now. Their nightmare? A coordinated strike that targets businesses, public services, central government, the financial sector and communication systems.
In the worst-case scenario, what might start slowly — a few propaganda messages here, a hacked Web site there — could quickly spread. The already hammered British economy might soon be crippled as the nation’s bank accounts are drained of their funds — stripping billions out of people’s hands in seconds — and major online shops including eBay and Amazon fail.
Elsewhere, communications networks could come under fire, with telephone, Internet and mobile systems quickly collapsing. The transport network might fail, too, causing air-traffic control computers to go haywire, rail systems to break down, traffic light systems to be reprogrammed.
The ensuing chaos would create panic around the country, with airports from Heathrow to Glasgow on high alert, facing the horrifying prospect of midair collisions as the aircraft above them are fed wrong information. While emergency services struggle to cope with the confusion, they could fall victim to attacks themselves. A stream of fake messages and alerts might send fire engines to the wrong locations and ambulances to hospitals already filled with patients.
And the coup de grace? Hidden programs inside the country’s electricity grid might then jump to life, shutting down power supplies, creating targeted blackouts — even sending nuclear reactors into freefall.
Such a doomsday scenario might sound drastic — more of a cyber-apocalypse than a cyberattack — but it is one that has been outlined many times by the London Metropolitan Police, the security service MI5 and the Joint Intelligence Committee.
US Navy investigator and cybercrime specialist Kenneth Geers characterizes the typical response of powerful individuals as they hear this doomsday scenario outlined as a sort of unbridled terror inspired by technology.
“More than one senior official said they’ve had so many cyber-briefings now that they don’t want to turn their computers on any more,” he says.
Geers identifies a number of potential weak spots in the system, including Web sites of “pure economic value” (such as banks and online shops) as well as telecommunications systems and the electricity grid.
“In the worst case? [Someone] invading your own infrastructure and using your own tools against you,” he says. “Tell your troops to move in the wrong direction, or your missiles to fire on your own cities ... anything in your imagination.”