Attacks on our digital infrastructures, known as cyber-attacks, are a common occurrence in the 21st century. Facilitated by high-speed wireless data transmission technologies, our reliance on digital communications has made us susceptible to attacks that could seriously disrupt global digital infrastructures. Such infrastructures include financial markets, telecommunication capabilities, healthcare, transportation, national security, and other technology-driven sectors.
Consequently, cyberterrorism and a global-scale cyber attack have the potential to be catastrophic to our modern world.
The scale of historical cyber and ransomware attacks, while certainly damaging, has been relatively small until this point. But the possibility exists that a global-scale cyber attack could be orchestrated and result in the widespread loss of digital infrastructure access for whole geographic regions. It’s, therefore, become crucial to prepare for this new era of global cyber attacks with revolutionary approaches to cybersecurity that take the specific risks of large-scale cyber attacks into account.
Attacks by bad actors on our existing digital infrastructures are no longer novel. Cyberterrorism is a well-documented tool often used by governments to destabilize enemies and rivals.
Examples of large-scale cyber and ransomware attacks in recent years include activity thought to be orchestrated by the People’s Republic of China, as detailed by the United States Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. The Russian Federation, meanwhile, has been reportedly preparing for additional cyberattacks against the backdrop of the Ukrainian conflict to leverage their flagging efforts to capture the country.
Yet these are just examples of relatively small-scale cyber-attacks that had specific targets. Larger-scale attacks, even global ones, would need to be fundamentally different to have a worldwide impact. In this case, the most apparent threat to global digital infrastructure is undoubtedly a powerful, widespread EMP, which due to the sheer sophistication and destructiveness of modern-day cyber weapons, could lead to societal collapse.
An EMP strike is a brief burst of electromagnetic energy that can affect an entire geographic region, such as the United States. Once triggered, the electromagnetic interference disrupts, or if large enough, destroys susceptible electronic devices and equipment in the targeted area. Therefore, the functioning of infrastructures essential to sustaining lives could be jeopardized, such as transportation, hospitals, water systems, communication systems, the electric grid, and other lifeline systems. Thus, the employment of an EMP weapon is a serious threat to societal continuity.
So, how can an electromagnetic pulse have such a significant impact on global infrastructure? Well, anything that creates a powerful enough burst of electromagnetic energy can 1. temporarily deactivate electronic devices or 2. permanently damage them.
Many incidents could trigger an electromagnetic pulse. A lightning strike generates a localized pulse. Solar Storms that reach the Earth’s atmosphere can cause even more widespread EMPs due to the magnetic field accompanied by the plasma released by the sun. But, we shouldn’t only be wary of natural sources, as EMPs can be artificial too, such as tactical missiles, and on a larger scale, the radiation produced from the detonation of a nuclear weapon.
The idea of a massive electromagnetic pulse disrupting electronic infrastructure across large territories may sound like a doomsday scenario you’re more likely to encounter in science-fiction films than in real life. Yet the truth is that an EMP can not only accomplish this feat but that it has influenced modern civilization already. In fact, there are examples of global electromagnetic pulses that have occurred in the past, such as the Carrington Event, which occurred in 1859.
Precipitated by a powerful solar flare that sent a massive coronal mass ejection toward the Earth, the Carrington Event is well-documented for disrupting the existing electrical infrastructure of the day. Thankfully, this was limited to the still-nascent telegraph technologies used around the globe. This disruption lasted for several days, damaging telegraph lines and equipment and resulting in many injuries to telegraph operators.
Naturally occurring EMPs pose a danger to infrastructure, but highly energetic examples such as the Carrington Event are few and far between. Additionally, modern astronomical observation techniques can identify solar storms that are likely to hit Earth and provide an early warning, offering opportunities to take steps to protect crucial infrastructure from harm before the planet feels the effects. Instead, the truly dangerous EMPs are those used as a weapon for global cyber attacks and triggered on purpose by bad actors.
Today’s cyber terrorists predominantly seek to disrupt digital infrastructures through two avenues: information control and EMP attacks. Information control through the practice of hacking supposedly secure servers and hijacking data compromises that data with all the associated effects. The second, however, is possibly even more dangerous as it involves rendering the physical side of digital infrastructure inoperable. An EMP accomplishes this remarkably well, and a large-scale EMP can cripple several nations at a time or even an entire continent.
Triggering an EMP at a specified location to disrupt a target’s digital infrastructure is well within the realm of possibility for any number of bad actors. Terrorist organizations, with or without the backing of hostile governments, can construct EMP weapons and then detonate them in target zones, either as the prelude to a physical invasion or to create disruptive levels of chaos at that location. The mechanism behind these “bombs” would be anything capable of generating high concentrations of microwave radiation across a localized area.
But these artificial EMPs are, by definition, tactical weapons that are limited in scope. A much more dangerous alternative, one that has the potential to affect huge geographical regions on the national scale, would be in the form of a nuclear weapon detonated at a sufficient height in the atmosphere. The resultant release of gamma rays produces high-energy electrons that enter the Earth’s magnetic field, creating an oscillating current that produces an EMP that has the potential to reach thousands of miles across.
As cyber or ransomware attacks become more varied and frequent, protecting the electric grid and other lifeline infrastructures from successful cyber attacks on a large scale is vital.
Thankfully, we already have some strategies widely leveraged today in this endeavor. One of those strategies is Faraday Cages, consisting of a fine metallic mesh that encloses the infrastructure. These cages act as hollow conductors by distributing incoming electromagnetic radiation across their exterior surface, preventing any from penetrating within and protecting equipment from being disabled or destroyed.
Yet using Faraday cages to shield critical pieces of infrastructure is only truly effective on a smaller scale. Securing America’s power grid from overload by a large-scale EMP becomes impossible in a logistical sense when relying on solutions originating from the 19th century.
So how do we better protect our infrastructure from a global cyber attack threat such as an EMP? There is no definitive answer now, a central concern for many governments and private corporations around the globe. But, much international research and development is going into finding larger-scale protection for global EMPs that don’t require individualized shielding, as well as restoration planning to ensure critical infrastructures can swiftly reenergize, after a strike, to sustain the communities that depend on them.
An example of modern international thinking on global cyber attack protection is our Global Cyber and EMP Strike Webinar which took place on Thursday, July 7, 2022. This multi-national exercise brought together leading cyber, defense, and security directors to explore the unique risks and national and global resilience opportunities associated with extreme cyber and EMP strikes.
As new technologies continue to be researched and deployed at an ever-increasing pace, and those technologies continue to become integrated into our global infrastructures, the threat of a global cyber attack looms ever larger. A strategically placed high-altitude nuclear detonation could result in an EMP reaching thousands of miles across, which could disable any unshielded electronics and effectively cripple an entire nation’s recovery efforts. Even a naturally occurring EMP, such as one caused by a sufficiently large solar storm, could cause similar carnage if the circumstances permitted it.
For these reasons, we continue to express concerns regarding the current state of our digital infrastructures. Addressing the limitations in our current prevention methods and developing new, better-suited ones will serve us well in minimizing the effects of a global cyber attack in the form of a large-scale EMP.
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