LONDON — In the fall of 2012, aboard a retired aircraft carrier permanently docked on the west side of Manhattan, I listened as then-United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delivered one of the most chilling speeches I have ever heard. To a roomful of leading CEOs and military leaders, Panetta spoke about the new cyber threats faced by civilized society and the many ways in which America’s adversaries could use computer networks to spread panic, paralyze the country and inflict mass casualties.
“Let me explain how this could unfold,” he said. “An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches. They could, for example, derail passenger trains or, even more dangerous, trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.
“The most destructive scenarios,” he continued, “involve cyber actors launching several attacks on our critical infrastructure at one time, in combination with a physical attack on our country. … The collective result of these kinds of attacks could be a cyber-Pearl Harbor, an attack that would cause physical destruction and loss of life. In fact, it would paralyze and shock the nation and create a new, profound sense of vulnerability.”