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Opinion: In the Case of a Cyberattack, Are You Prepared?

Cyberattack photo by jaydeep.

By Karl Bickel

The writer, formerly second in command of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and former assistant professor of criminal justice, is retired from the U.S. Department of Justice. He is a candidate for sheriff in Frederick County.

One only needs to acquaint themselves with any news venue these days to hear of the possibility of a cyberattack on the United States and or the Western world. Are you prepared? Is your community prepared?

There is no need to panic or overreact to the possibility of a cyberattack on the U.S. that would impact Maryland communities. In fact, doing so could be counterproductive. Panicking never helps and overreaction seldom does. It is, however, a good time to make reasonable plans and prepare for the possibility.

The war in Ukraine and threats from Russian leader Vladimir Putin raises the specter of possible cyberattacks against the U.S. and Western allies. Cyberattacks on the United States, attacks that could impact our Maryland communities, could cut off electric power, interrupt fuel supplies, disrupt banking, shut down communications, etc. A cyberattack could disrupt anything connected to the internet.

The threat posed by the paranoid authoritarian Putin is real. Whether the U.S. and Maryland’s communities will suffer the effects of a cyberattack is unknown. What is known is that some planning and preparation now can mitigate the impact a cyberattack would have should it occur.

Also known is that in the past the county government leaders in my community have not taken seriously the possibility of a cyberattack that could shut down our power grid, leaving us in the dark. In summer 2019, I made a Public Information Act request for the planned response to a wide-range, long-term power outage. I was told “all of the records you requested are considered response procedures or plans prepared to prevent or respond to emergency situations.” My request was denied.

After a follow-up email, a meeting with some county government leaders was arranged. During a July 2019 meeting, county officials described a cyberattack that could shut down the power grid as a high consequence but low probability event, with emphasis on low probability over a high consequence.

There seemed to be no specific plan, basic knowledge or interest in the subject. The lack of knowledge regarding the ability to maintain services during a cyberattack, such as electric power, communications (telephone and internet), water, natural gas and other basic services we have come to rely on, was somewhat alarming.

Before writing “What will you do when the lights go out?” (Frederick News-Post, Sept. 9, 2021), I contacted the principal member of county government present in the July 2019 meeting and asked, “In view of the increase in cyberattacks, increased demands on the power grid due to high temperatures and weather events, the impact of forest fires and a domestic terrorist threat, have your thoughts on the probability [of a long-term, wide-range power outage] changed?” In response I got, “… I would point you to a different level of government for answers.” I was provided a Maryland state website address that had nothing to do with the topic.

This begs the question of whether local government leaders are taking the threat seriously? Is your local community prepared? Are you prepared?

To some degree, it might be up to us as individuals and organized community groups to make what preparations we see fit based on our perception of the threat of a cyberattack and at least in my county, not wait for local government to act.

On Feb. 20, the FBI’s Cyber Division warned “… the private sector about the threat of Russian state-sponsored advanced persistent threat cyber activities while tensions with Russia are heightened.” In a recent interview, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner said, “Putin has been pretty clear that one of the first tools he would use to bring economic harm to NATO and America is cyber.”

All of this should raise serious concerns, but it is not a time to be making a run on banks or stripping store shelves of food and toilet paper. It would be prudent though to keep some cash on hand, adequate fuel in our vehicles, a supply of nonperishable food and water to get us through until things got sorted out, should a cyberattack occur.

Given today’s world events, such as they are, I see any preparation for a cyberattack on the U.S. as an insurance policy, a policy that can be cashed in, in the case of a cyberattack, catastrophic weather event, or other natural or manmade disaster.

A little preparation now can prevent or mitigate panic and the possibility of public disorder should our Maryland communities be impacted by a cyberattack. It has been said that when you fail to prepare you are preparing to fail.