Suddenly, the lights across a city go off. There is no warning, and no explanation. People expect the power to come back on, but it doesn’t.
People’s mobile phones suddenly stop working. Televisions don’t work. The internet has cut out.
Not only can’t the citizens call for help, they can’t find out what’s going on. Panic spreads quickly.
A few buildings with back-up power are the only beacons in a blacked-out city. A cyber attack has struck home.
Probable? No. Possible? Certainly. Tests have shown that cyber attacks could attack power grids, and knocking out communications is the bread and butter of even relatively low-level cyber attacks.
There is always a weak link - and it’s usually the humans who operate the machines.
Most highly visible cyber attacks use very basic tools - free software, wielded by groups of fairly amateur enthusiasts.
A determined attacker, using tools more sophisticated than the ‘blunt instrument’ of mass attacks against websites, could slowly infiltrate, control and unleash havoc.
‘A major cyber attack is going to cause a tremendous amount of chaos,’ says Kevin Haley, Director of Security Response at Norton, ‘It’s just part of the way our infrastructure has evolved. We think of things like a power grid as a huge switch, which you simply switch on and off. That’s not how we do things any more.’
Other tests showed that attacks on similar ‘programmable logic controllers’ - simple computer systems used to control industrial systems - could achieve terrifying effects.
A test in America showed that computer controlled cell doors in prisons could be opened remotely by anyone with access to the system controlling them.
Earlier tests in 2007 proved that hackers could overwhelm a diesel generator, causing it to self destruct.
At the time, the U.S. government described such cyber attacks as ‘a new kind of weapon’- one that it has invested billions in fighting.
But cyber attackers would not need to directly attack the government to cause chaos. Instead, they could target the private companies that provide mobile networks, power and information via the internet. Such attacks could be just as devastating as a head-on assault against a government.
‘Given the desire to do it, communication systems are basically computer systems, and there are flaws,’ says Haley.
‘You could attack power and water. You could screw up other parts of the infrastructure. It wouldn’t be the end of civilisation, but a lot is going to go dark.’
Haley says that computer systems that people don’t see as vulnerable to hackers - such as smartphones - could be a new ‘way in’ for hackers.
‘Mean girls always pick on the popular kid, and right now, mobile computing is the popular kid. Why wouldn’t the bad guys follow them?’
‘Hackers are in a perfect environment to ‘tune’ their attacks. If they send one email saying ‘Click on this funny cat video,’ and people don’t fall for that, they just try again.
'Hackers are not like the guys you see in Hollywood movies, where they sit down in front of a computer and just write a virus on the fly. They do a lot of planning.’
Haley describes such all-out apocalyptic attacks as ‘possible’ although not probable. Haley says, though, that terrorists may prefer to use more ‘old fashioned’ methods.
‘If I was a terrorist, would I attack the systems at a power plant and cause a blackout across a city, or would I fire a missile at it?’ he asks.
‘Hacking into their networks would cause chaos - but firing a missile into the plant is going to cause a lot more damage.’