Last week, the European Union revealed that its headquarters had come under a major cyber attack, likely state-sponsored, on the eve of the EU summit. Earlier this month, the French announced that they had been hit with a cyber assault at the end of 2010, probably launched by Chinese hackers, aimed at pilfering sensitive G-20 documents from finance ministry computers in Paris. Last fall, the Nasdaq suffered what looks like an organized-crime attack on a service it provides to corporate executives for exchanging confidential files.
But what if e-espionage aimed at the financial sector suddenly escalated into e-war? What if, for example, China, North Korea or Iran initiated a crippling assault against the West’s electronic financial network, where trillions of dollars worth of transactions occur every day?
Such an event would mean a massive and potentially long-lasting disruption to the flow of dollars and euros among banks, businesses and consumers. At a minimum, it would mean the loss or corruption of financial data at major stock and commodity exchanges.
Experienced Washington hands, such as former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, rightly worry about insidious Stuxnet-type worms that might be insinuated into financial networks. Such worms can wreak havoc slowly and methodically by corrupting financial data without creating immediate alarm.
“At some point people would no longer have confidence in the ability to trust the transactional records,” Mr. Chertoff cautions. “We’ve seen what happens when you have a meltdown in public confidence in the financial sector in 2008. And I think that would be small potatoes compared to what we would see if we had this kind of attack.”