POSTSCRIPT / July 22 2018 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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Red lights flashing on cyber-terrorism

IT’S NOT that evident yet to most Filipinos beset by the more immediate issues of rising prices and falling real wages, of runaway crime and corruption, but intelligence authorities in the US are again flashing warning lights on cyber-terrorism.

The alarm is reminiscent of similar intelligence advisories before the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that killed 2,996 people when terrorists hijacked airliners and crashed two of them on the World Trade Center in New York and one on the Pentagon. A fourth jet wrested back by passengers crash-landed on a field in Pennsylvania.

Among those sounding the alarm this time is Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, former ambassador and Republican senator from Indiana, who was among the authorities who talked Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

Aspen is one Pacific Ocean away from Manila, but its warning against cyber terrorism is magnified by its proximity to the midterm US election in November and the Philippines’ senatorial and local elections in May next year.

Assuming there will be Philippine elections in 2019 despite efforts to derail them by officials who fear losing at the polls, authorities should wake up to the danger of cyber-hackers distorting the voice of the electorate in the next election (or plebiscite).

The new alarum in the US comes after the Russian meddling in the 2016 US election, an attack confirmed by the filing Friday of hacking charges against 12 Russian military cyber-operatives in the mold of Vladimir Putin, the KGB spymaster.

While US intelligence officials highlight Russian actors when they talk of cyber-terrorism, Trump mentioned the Kremlin last as a US “foe” in a presscon in Helsinki on Monday, where he initially said, with Putin standing beside him, that the Russians could not have done it.

Answering a question, Trump put Russia at the end of his list of US “foes.” He mentioned first the European Union whose leaders he chided the week before for their disproportionate contributions to NATO funding, then China with which the US is engaged in a tariff war.

In the context of geopolitical realities in the South China Sea, a Philippine list of its potential adversaries naming the same three nations could come out in reverse — with China being on top and Russia at the other end. The EU would not be on the list.

An investigative report three years ago by NBC News said that the Chinese had attacked repeatedly US businesses and government facilities. The raids included hacking credit data, moving funds, sifting public documents, disrupting air traffic control systems and the power grid.

In the Philippines, there is need for a continuing review of election hardware and software – as well as peopleware — to minimize the possibility of foreign interests hacking into the system and manipulating the results.

Aside from direct manipulation of elections, there could be, as in the US experience, infiltration through social media outside the automated poll system to influence the thinking of unsuspecting voters.

The brainwashing of voters and the population in general can be done via the Internet – as has been shown in the leakage and falsification of account information of millions of Facebook and Twitter users to spread false information in a massive mind-conditioning operation.

Call centers and BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) firms should be monitored to ensure they are not used for this type of manipulation. But even beyond national boundaries, after the infrastructure is laid out, online operations could be directed and completed from offshore.

 ‘Cyber-attacks disrupt daily life, divide nation’

IN ASPEN, intelligence director Coats warned that cyber-attacks, aside from manipulating elections, also disrupt everyday life and divide the nation. He said Trump was right in pointing out that Russian interference was just one of many potential threats.

“What we see every day,” he said, “… against our institutions, our military, our financial services, our critical infrastructure — stretching from those who have major capabilities of doing this, starting with Russia, including China… Add Iran into that, add ISIS.”

Coats added: “I’m concerned about a cyber-9/11. Let’s say you shut down Wall Street for a week. What does that do to the world’s markets and people’s investments? What about an attack on the electric grid in New England in January, that’s sophisticated to take it out for three days. How many people will die?”

At the Hudson Institute three days before Helsinki, Coats noting the daily attacks from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, also said: “Here we are, nearly two decades (after 9-11), and I’m here to say the warning lights are blinking red again.”

He was harking back to the warning of former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet who, in the months before 9/11, noted that the “system was blinking red.”

Coats warned of an impending, potentially devastating cyber-attack on US systems, saying the country’s digital infrastructure “is literally under attack.” Among state actors, he said, Russia is the “worst offender.”

Coats said the targets include businesses, federal, state and local governments, military, academic and financial institutions, and critical infrastructure. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security had reported having detected Russian probing into the energy, nuclear, water, aviation and manufacturing sectors.

In the Aspen forum later, Coats lamented that while multiple agencies have been working on their respective assigned tasks, there was no key official designated to coordinate the related but separate operations dealing with cyber threats.

The US Senate, meanwhile, voted 98-0 (two senators absent) in favor of a resolution opposing the offer of Putin to exchange the Russians indicted for hacking the 2016 election with US officials, including some diplomats, for interrogation in Kremlin for alleged crimes.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 22, 2018)

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