Back in pre-internet 1983, Hollywood speculated about what would happen if a hacker broke into US defence systems triggering a possible nuclear war.
Some 34 years on, UK-based international relations think tank Chatham House has issued a research paper warning that, in the age of cyber security, the nightmare scenario acted out by a young Matthew Broderick in WarGames could become a reality.
However the UK Ministry of Defence this afternoon effectively assured the world — ‘don’t worry, we’ve got this’.
Report authors Doctors Beyza Unal and Patricia Lewis warn:
Hacking nuclear systems – such as command and control, critical assets, nuclear weapons facilities – was once believed to be an impossible task.
Yet, history has shown that human error, system failures and design vulnerabilities are common occurrences in nuclear weapons systems. They warn that nuclear subs, for instance, could become compromised while docked.
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And with masterly understatement, they say:
This is particularly troublesome as complex and tightly coupled systems, such as nuclear weapons systems, may lead to attacks with severe consequences.
In order to infiltrate a nuclear weapons system, hackers may compromise source code, firmware or internal portals. The military term for this is ‘compromised by design’ where subcomponents (such as computer chips) are interfered with at the production and design stage.
And the report concludes:
The most severe consequence of a cyberattack on one or more nuclear weapons systems would be the inadvertent launch of missiles and/or the inadvertent detonation of a warhead that lead to a significant loss of life.
The apparently well-informed readers of The Times of London, which carried news of the report today, were maintaining a characteristic stiff upper lip in comments which appeared under the online version of the story headlined: ‘Cyber attack could trigger nuclear strike in error’.
Peter Hurley said:
If anyone in Chatham House actually knew the command and control system specifications for UK’s Nuclear weapons it would comprise a major security leak. Ergo their report is highly likely to be nothing more than pure conjecture.
How can Chatham House staff possibly assess the vulnerabilities when most nuclear systems work is classified Top Secret Codeword requiring a DV clearance?
Daniel Underwood said:
The usual vague scaremongering. Nuclear command and control systems are physically isolated in submarines and underground bunkers, and are on independent secure communications links. The film WarGames was fiction, not documentary.
After keeping the world in suspense for some 14 hours following publication of the report at 12am London time, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement:
We have absolute confidence in our robust measures to keep the nuclear deterrent safe and secure. We invest significant resources into regularly assuring the deterrent’s protection against cyber-attacks and other threats. The UK takes cyber security very seriously across the board, doubling its investment in the area to £1.9bn.
Featured image: Shutterstock (illustration)