Cyber-Pearl Harbor warning issued by Leon Panetta
"An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches. They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger 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," says Panetta.
Defense officials add that Panetta is not exaggerating, but that he is pushing for federal legislation that would require new computer security standards in private-sector infrastructure facilities, like power plants, water treatment plants and gas pipelines.
In August, there was a cybersecurity bill that was blocked in Congress by a group of Republicans, led by Senator McCain, who said it would be too burdensome on corporations. But Panetta insists there is a very real threat.
"Cyber-actors launching several attacks on our critical infrastructure at one time, in combination with a physical attack [would result in] a cyber-Pearl Harbor that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life, an attach that would paralyze and shock the nation and create a profound new sense of vulnerability," says Panetta.
Panetta also insists that federal legislation is not targeting emails or information from private companies.
"We're not interested in looking at e-mail, we're not interested in looking at information in computers, I'm not interested in violating rights or liberties of people. But if there is a code, if there's a worm that's being inserted, we need to know when that's happening," says Panetta. "I'm not sure they're going to volunteer if they don't feel that they're protected legally in terms of sharing information. So our hope is that ultimately we can get Congress to adopt that kind of legislation."