On 9/11 in 2001, terrorists from al-Qaeda brandished box cutters to hijack planes from United Airlines and American Airlines, crashing one jet from each company into twin towers of the World Trade Center. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people.
In 16 years since then, a new generation of terrorists brandish keyboards in lieu of box cutters. Their threat looms far bigger than the shadow of the nearly 1,400-foot former WTC towers.
Just as 9/11 terrorists targeted edifices that were business icons, cyberterrorists aim at American business targets, seen by jihadists as evil emblems of free commerce. Business targets include banks as portals to paralyze our financial system, transportation companies to cripple the flow of goods, utilities to wreck electric grids and car companies to derail self-driving cars and kill passengers.
Symantec, a cybersecurity firm based in Mountain View, on Sept. 6 warned that a hacker group known as Dragonfly has targeted energy firms in North America and Europe since 2015.
A cyberincident could shut down portions of American business for long periods. Even regional banks including Santa Rosa-based Exchange Bank regularly fend off attempts that appear intended to inflict damage — more than stealing customer identities and funds.
In August, HBO was hit by hackers who leaked upcoming episodes of shows including “Game of Thrones, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Insecure” and “Ballers,” as well as new shows. In 2014, Sony fell victim to cyberattacks as employees were unable to access the company network, red skeletons appeared on their screens, and emails, personal information and unreleased movies were leaked.
The Sony attack was “way worse” than HBO attacks, said Jim Stickley, owner of Stickley on Security, which consults to Sonoma County companies from its base in San Diego. Hackers had “access to everything,” Stickley said, “mail, payroll. It was a free-for-all.”
Federal authorities attributed the Sony attack to North Korea. The company’s then unreleased spoof movie “The Interview” featured two journalists hired by the CIA to assassinate that country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
“If they weren’t part of North Korea, they were definitely representing North Korea,” Stickley said.
Hacking is a new form of warfare, Stickley said. “When Russia went into the Ukraine, they hacked their networks first,” he said. “Every major government on the planet has an entire hacking unit” devoted to attacking other countries.
“When someone shoots a bomb at you, it’s war,” he said. “When someone hacks into your network, there’s no precedent set that that’s war. That’s just digital. Everybody is in this weird spot now. If China hacks in and takes down infrastructure, is that an act of war or just a nuisance? You are seeing rogue craziness going on. Nobody has defined” a digital attack. “If you do this, it’s an act of war.”
The United States runs its own digital combat. “We hack everybody,” Stickley said. “We have done lots of damage,” such as hacking Iran’s nuclear centrifuges using Stuxnet, a malicious program developed a dozen years ago. The worm reportedly wrecked nearly a fifth of Iran’s centrifuges then raced around the globe to infect nearly a quarter of a million computers. “We set them back years” in their manufacturing of centrifuges, he said.
In Iran, centrifuge manufacturing was not connected to the Internet, so the worm attack might have been brought in on portable drives, such as thumb drives, he said.