5 Ways Foreign Hackers are Targeting the U.S.

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A new Cold War is heating up online. Despite the outrage concerning Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee communications during the 2016 presidential election, the problem runs much deeper. Many Americans would be stunned at how frequently foreign hackers successfully target U.S. government, defense contractors, academic institutions and other computer networks. Denial of Service attacks where foreign controllers direct “zombie users” to overload and crash sites are now common, and have even hit popular sites such as Amazon and Netflix. The U.S. government and the Department of Defense are fighting back, although many breaches are discovered only after the fact. Here are five ways foreign hackers are hurting the U.S., and could potentially cause even greater damage than they’ve already inflicted.


5. Terrorists Are Eyeing the Power Grid, Other Infrastructure

The United States’ aging power grid is a target for terrorists. © Oran Viriyincy

The U.S. power grid is outdated and subject to widespread failure even under normal operating conditions; recall that the 2003 blackout that affected 45 million Americans started with tree branches hitting a power line in Ohio. A long-term and widespread loss of power could be deadly. In late 2015, the FBI and Homeland Security revealed that the terrorist organization ISIS had attempted numerous unsuccessful hacking attempts on U.S. electric companies. FBI cyber official John Riggi described these attempts as “Strong intent … thankfully, low capability.” But the fear is that this could change.

The power grid isn’t the only possible U.S. target for foreign cyber warriors. In 2016, the FBI charged seven Iranians with hacking U.S. banks, and also claimed they “compromised critical controls” at a New York dam. It’s not hard to imagine a scaled-up sort of attack against a large dam like Hoover or the obsolete air traffic control system.


4. Hackers Seeking U.S. Foreign Policy Information, Intelligence

Foreign hackers routinely try to hack the Pentagon, State Department and other prominent U.S. agencies. © Davide Restivo

Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal and unsecured e-mail server sparked controversy during the recent 2016 presidential election, but even if she’d done everything through “secure” government servers, hackers are diligently working to breach those firewalls. Some of the biggest U.S. secrets are strategic, orders of battle and response to crises worldwide that include which specific units and numbers of aircraft, troops etc. would be used in a given situation. The Pentagon even brought in white-hat hackers in 2016 in an attempt to deliberately “break the system” and find and repair weak spots in the Department of Defense’s cyber network.

One of the more enlightening — some would say embarrassing — facts brought to light in recent years with the advent of security breeches such as Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is how the United States deals with other nations behind closed doors. Even in the cloak-and-dagger world of statecraft, it’s not generally understood how friendly nations such as the U.S. France and the United Kingdom routinely spy on each other in a bid for proprietary technology. And the U.S. is going after its enemies in cyberspace; the 2010 Stuxnet virus attack on Iranian nuclear centrifuges is suspected to have originated as a joint U.S./Israeli cyberweapon.


3. Hackers Targeting Wall Street, Financial Firms

Wall Street and financial institutions are stepping up efforts to combat attacks by cyberterrorists. © Ryan Lawler

The heart of American influence is its financial power. So it should come as no surprise foreign interests want to do what they can to disrupt the financial sector and learn its secrets. In May 2013, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee cited numerous hacks of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC). Officials blamed the hacks on China, although China denied the charges. Iranian hackers have also been busy. As noted above, in early 2016, the Justice Department indicted seven Iranian hackers working for Iran-based computer companies for conducting distributed denial of service attacks crashing servers at 46 financial institutions across the U.S. The attacks, carried out between 2011 and 2013, cost financial firms tens of millions of dollars to mitigate.

Like the attack on the dam controls in Rye, N.Y., (also carried out by the same team), the attacks seem suspiciously like a tentative probing of the system for possible larger-scale mayhem. The Justice Department report also cites ties by the Iranians with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the first time the U.S. has publicly labeled a foreign government agency as sponsoring individuals involved with cyber-hacking.


2. China Has Stolen U.S. Defense Technology Secrets

After the United States developed the new F-35 fighter, China hacked blueprints and other sensitive information to help it build its own version of the jet.

The new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a premier aircraft, able to easily outperform the USAF’s F-15 Eagle and the U.S. Navy’s F-18 Hornet in air superiority combat. And China has blueprints and other critical information regarding the development of that cutting-edge aircraft. NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s leak of classified information revealed China had hacked 50 terabytes of data about the development of the futuristic fighter. This hack saved China an estimated 25 years of research and development on its own advanced strike fighter. Now, imagine the potential for such a hack in revealing weapons systems vulnerabilities. In 2016, Chinese national Su Bin admitted to conspiring with Chinese military officials and sharing defense contractor secrets pertaining to the Navy’s F-35 and U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptor fighter and C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft. U.S. officials sentenced Su Bin to three years and ten months in prison; the Chinese media hailed him as a national hero.


1. North Korea, Others Stealing Business, Academic Secrets

North Korea is one of several countries probing U.S. computer networks looking for intelligence and business secrets. © KCNA

The attack by North Korean hackers on Sony Pictures in response to the release of the film The Interview underlined the vulnerabilities of U.S. corporations. It also marked the first time that a U.S. president publicly blamed another nation for hacking a U.S. interest. In 2016, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command Admiral Michael S. Rogers told Congress that China is continuing to target government, defense, academic and private networks, despite pledges to President Obama that the country would stop its ongoing cyber espionage. China has been carrying out these attacks for years, costing the U.S. and private firms billions of dollars. That figure doesn’t sound alarming, considering the $4 trillion annual U.S. budget. But it takes a toll on the economy; a 2014 study by the cyber-security firm McAfee estimated cyber-crime has prevented the creation of an estimated 200,000 jobs in the U.S.


Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.