Former officials play a very modern war game

A four hour cyber-war simulation suggests the United States response could be severely lacking if such an event became reality.

The Cyber Shockwave event, organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center, says that new laws are needed to give the federal government greater controls over privately controlled computers in the event of an attack. It also called for international agreement on what is and is not acceptable in terms of cyber-attacks during military conflicts.

The simulation involved ten former politicians and officials playing the roles of their contemporary equivalents. The scenario centered on a March Madness app (based on the annual NCAA basketball tournaments) which turned out to house some big-time malicious software. In turn these caused problems for the Internet itself.

The biggest stumbling block appeared to be that there are serious legal questions about whether the government has the legal power to close down cellphone networks. Participants noted that closing these networks might be necessary if failing to do so could have a knock-on effect on communications in general.

At the later stages of the simulation, other problems such as two homemade bombs on power stations and a hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast were added. It’s arguable how realistic that would be, but the point of the exercise seemed to be that if the communications networks were compromised, the government reaction to other problems would be severely hampered.

Speaking to BusinessWeek, former CIA acting director John McLaughlin noted the problems were as much political as technical: “You’re stuck with incredible ambiguity and lousy choices. Generally, this is how government works.”

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