The Consequences of Attacks on Major Global Institutions

Evidence of recent attacks on major political and financial systems suggests that large-scale attacks on critical infrastructures are still a focus of attackers, despite recent reports that cyber attackers are focusing on smaller targets. In an article titled “Are We Ready for a Financial Cyber Attack” the Wall Street Journal hints at several of the most serious potential cyber attacks the world could experience. The article alludes to a potential attack on Western financial institutions that could affect trillions of dollars of transactions everyday, and could have a destabilizing effect on economic and political stability. Unfortunately, in the last few months, some attacks on major financial and political systems have come close to that possibility.

In the last six months, the European Union, the G-20 Summit, and the NASDAQ have all come under serious cyber-attacks. While the spokespeople for the EU and G-20 acknowledged that they come under attacks frequently, in the last six months they’ve been subjected to “more serious” attacks, which suggests the potential consequences of the attacks succeeding could have been tremendous. The EU did not release extensive information about what specifically was targeted, only saying that it was an attack on their External Action Service, which suggests that the target was confidential information regarding the relations between the EU and outside world.

As a meeting that has a tangible and critically important role in the health of the global economy, there is a great deal of important and sensitive information that goes into allowing the participants of the G-20 to understand the present state of the economy and figure out how to create growth in the future. Private, country-specific economic data, information about trade balances, and growth projections are all bits of information used to help the finance ministers guide the global economy. However, some of that information is deemed private, and is not to be disclosed either to other countries or the public, and the release of such information could cause people to make decisions based on the released information that are counter-productive to the growth of the global economy.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff touched on the severity of potential consequences to such a major attack in saying that “at some point people would no longer have confidence in the ability to trust the transactional records…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.”

The potential consequences of an attack on such a critical institution would not only mean chaos in the financial world, but could potentially affect the stability of the political world as well. If an economy becomes unstable in light of an attack, the chaos and fear that would ensue would likely spur consequences for that country’s government as responsibility for stabilizing the situation would fall to the country’s leaders. In an increasingly globalized world, the economic shock would likely spread to other countries as well, providing further political instability. There were suspicions that the attacks on the EU and G-20 were state-sponsored, which begs the question of whether or not these attacks could escalate into an “e-war.” 2 If one government suspected that another state was using a cyber attack to destabilize its economy, the potential retaliation for such an attack could stretch far beyond the realm of the internet. The ever-increasing technology dependence has opened the world up to an entirely new forum for warfare, and it would only take a few well-placed attacks for the financial and political systems of the world as we know it to crumble.