Before I wrote for FIRE CHIEF, I spent most of my career in the business-to-business press writing about technology. I began as a press-release writer for Torrey Science, a R&D satellite tracking company. Our big competitor — Qualcomm — was across the street and eventually beat us to market, so our company folded. I then moved on to write about mainframe computers and eventually firefighter tracking, the smart grid and cybersecurity for FIRE CHIEF's sister publication, Urgent Communications.
Cybersecurity was the topic of some of my favorite movies as a teenager, including Hackers staring Angelina Jolie. As a Gen-Xer, I grew up in a time where hacking still was the stuff of science fiction. Still, many of us played around with the concept on our Apple IIE computers. I remember my brother and me imploding each other’s programs by simply guessing passwords. It was fun and fairly harmless.
But today, cyber war is anything but harmless. Cyber threats to federal systems originate from hackers looking to do mischief to state-sponsored foreign intelligence services looking to steal sensitive data or launch a cyber attack that can cripple critical infrastructure. Indeed, the U.S. published a report in November 2011 about the current state of the cyber war that specifically identified China and Russia as frequent attackers against U.S. networks.
Federal leaders continue to be worried. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned in a speech at Georgetown University Wednesday that a hostile country could attack America by computer, calling it a “21st century Pearl Harbor.” (See video below.)
Hackers aren't just attacking the big guys, like the Federal Reserve, the New York Times and Google. They are targeting smaller, more vulnerable public-safety agencies. For example, the group Anonymous hacked the police department website in Fairfield, N.J., a town with a population of 7,466. The attack succeeded in destroying several files on the server, leading officials to take down the website.
Panetta also is concerned about increased attacks across the board and threats to the nation’s power grids. Power is needed to drive public-safety radio communications, among other systems. Could you imagine a nation of first responders without access to power and the mayhem that would follow?
Fire chiefs need to think about this as they consider building out new software systems and adapting to new technologies, especially those housed on the cloud. Whenever a new system is pitched, chiefs need to ask how the vendor will provide security against sophisticated attacks. In addition, cyber security should be part of every emergency communication discussion. If not, weak public-safety systems may give hackers access to bigger networks, such as a county emergency communications center.
I can’t predict what may happen if this issue is ignored. But if Panetta is worried, you should be, too.