Monday, December 31, 2007

Threats, Rumors, the Internet, and Banks

Well, it's finally happened. I am in possession of some information which may be completely unreliable, but on the other hand is not public knowledge. And it has something to do with engineering ethics, broadly defined. (That's the only way it's defined in this blog—broadly.)

Here it is: About six weeks ago, a U. S. Congressperson went around telling a few of her friends to get as much money out of the bank as they could, since the credit and banking computer systems were under a significant terrorist threat. One of the people the Congressperson told, told my sister, and yesterday my sister told me. (That's pretty stale news for an Internet blog, I realize, but hey, I use what I can get.) It's quite possible that the threat, if it ever existed, has disappeared by now. But it did stimulate me to ask the question, "What are the chances that a concerted terrorist attack on the credit and banking computer systems would succeed in shutting down the U. S. economy?"

So far, in the very limited research I've done, I can't find anybody who has addressed that question recently in so many words. But I turned up a few things I didn't know about, and so I'll share them with you.

The vast majority of cybercrimes committed in this country result not in nationwide crises, but in thousands or millions of consumers losing sums varying from a few cents to thousands of dollars or more. False and deceptive websites using the technique known as "phishing" capture much of this ill-gotten gain. These can range from quasi-legal sites that simply sell something online that's available elsewhere for free if you just looked a little harder (I fell for this one once), down to sophisticated sites that imitate legitimate organizations such as banks and credit card companies with the intention of snagging an unsuspecting consumer's credit information and cleaning out their electronic wallets. While these activities are annoying (or worse if you happen to be a victim of identity theft and get your credit rating loused up through no fault of your own), they in themselves do not pose a threat to the security of the U. S. economy as a whole.

What we're talking about is the cybercrime equivalent of a 9/11: a situation in which nobody (or almost nobody) could complete financial transactions using the Internet. Since a huge fraction of the daily economic activity of the nation now involves computer networks in some way or other, that would indeed be a serious problem if it went on for longer than a day or two.

The consequences of such an attack can be judged by what happened after the real 9/11 in 2001, when the entire aviation infrastructure was closed down for a few days. The real economic damage came not so much from that "airline holiday" (although it hurt) as from the reluctance to fly that millions of people felt for months afterward. This landed the airline industry in a slump from which it is only now recovering.

A little thought will show that a complete terrorist-caused shutdown isn't necessary to produce the desired effect (or undesired, depending on your point of view), even if it were possible, which it may not be, given the distributed and robust nature of the Internet. Say some small but significant fraction—even as little as 1% to 3%—of online financial transactions began going completely astray. I try to buy an MPEG file online for 99 cents, and I end up getting a bill for $403.94 for some industrial chemical I never heard of. Or stuff simply disappears and nobody has a record of it, and no way of telling if it got there. That is the essence of terrorism: do a very small and low-budget thing that does some spectacular damage and scares everybody into changing their behavior in a pernicious way. If such minor problems led only ten percent of the public to quit buying things, you'd have an instant recession.

Enough of this devil's advocacy. Now for the good news. There is an outfit called the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center (FSISAC). It was founded back in 1999 to provide the nation's banking, credit, and other financial services organizations with a place to share computer security information. Although it has run across some roadblocks—in 2002, one Ty Sagalow testified before the Senate about how FSISAC needed some exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act and antitrust laws in order to do its job better—the mere fact that seven years after 9/11, we have not suffered a cyberterrorist equivalent of the World Trade Center attacks says that somebody must be doing something right.

You may have seen the three-letter abbreviation "SSL" on some websites or financial transactions you have done online. That stands for "Secure Socket Layer" and if you've been even more sharp-eyed and seen a "VeriSign" logo, that means the transaction was safeguarded by FSISAC's service provider, VeriSign, out of Mountain View, California. I'm sure they employ many software engineers and other specialists to keep ahead of those who would crack the security codes that protect internet financial transactions, and it's not an easy job. But as bad as identity theft or phishing is these days, it would be much worse without the work of VeriSign and other similar organizations.

If the truth be told, much cybercrime is made easier by the stupid things some consumers do, such as giving out their credit card numbers and passwords and social security numbers to "phishy-"looking websites, or in response to emails purporting to be from your bank or credit card company. Any financial organization worth its salt guards passwords and such things as gold, and never has to stoop to the expedient of emailing its customers to say, "Oh, please remind us of your password again, we lost it." But as P. T. Barnum is alleged to have said, no one has ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Or maybe it was taste, not intelligence. Anyway, don't fall for such stunts.

The FSISAC has a handy pair of threat level monitors on their main website, with colors that run from green to blue, yellow, orange, and red. As of today, the general risk of cyber attacks is blue ("guarded") and the significant risk of physical terrorist attacks is yellow ("elevated"). I'm not sure what you're supposed to do with that information, but you might sleep better tonight after the New Year's Eve celebration knowing that your online money and credit are—reasonably—safe. Happy New Year!

Sources: The FSISAC website showing the threat-level displays is at VeriSign's main website is Mr. Sagalow's testimony before the U. S. Senate in May of 2002 is reproduced at

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