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Mustaque Ahamad, Computing Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says that the IT industry puts functionality above security at its peril. The interview is part of the Risk Response Network’s “What if?” series.
Why is this on your radar at the moment?
What keeps me awake at night is the fact that we don’t have a good understanding of the risks we face, now that more and more people and things are connected to the Internet.
Cyber attacks have become very easy to mount, but they are still hard to defend against.
How would the situation unfold? We could see something like a large-scale Denial of Service attack, an attempt to make the Internet unavailable to people who rely on it. This sort of attack would involve someone, or a group of people, who is successful in compromising key Internet infrastructure services or who bombards Web servers with a flood of requests, so that they are unable to respond to legitimate queries.
When a regular person tries to access the Internet, you would simply see an error message.
Another common form of attack uses malware, which is basically software that you don’t want. By exploiting a vulnerability, an attacker finds a way to send code to your machine, where it starts to run on its own. It could be waiting for a command to steal data, or to send spam. Such compromised machines can also be used to send bogus requests and launch a Denial of Service attack.
What would the consequences be?
It is not just a question of being unable to check the weather or go on Facebook. It would have huge effects on essential services on which we rely in our daily lives. These could be communication, transportation or the supply of essentials like food, energy and healthcare – everything. On a simplified level, if the Internet is down and you can’t access electronic medical records in an emergency, people die as a result.
There has been a huge convergence between virtual life and the real, physical world: we work, live and play on the Internet, so the consequences of an outage are across the board. And we no longer count on phone lines as a backup: they are increasingly moving to networks that enable the Internet.