Harnessing Cybertech?

By Donald Christiansen

Many of us were exposed to the belief that technology and our own personal role in its development could be the savior of mankind. Yet it now appears that many cyber developments will become a major threat to that hopeful ambition. Some examples follow.

Cybercrime now threatens individuals as well as businesses and is growing at a rapid pace. The Russian military cyber operation has disrupted corporations and utilities and is preparing for cyberwarfare (see Greenberg ref.).

Jonathan Lusthaus, director of the Human Cybercriminal Project at the University of Oxford, describes how a “Criminal Silicon Valley” now thrives in Eastern Europe. It centers on cybercrime organized and conducted by STEM-educated cybercriminals who have been discouraged from starting their own legitimate businesses.

Bill Joy, the chief scientist for Sun Microsystems, predicts that “by 2030 we are going to be able to build machines that are a million times as powerful as the personal computers of today, and as we combine that . . . with the ability to manipulate things in the physical and biological sciences (while) understanding what we are manipulating and being able to simulate it, we open up the opportunity . . . to completely redesign the world for better or worse.” Joy goes on to suggest that unlimited open access to new knowledge might “put us all in clear danger of extinction.”

The Electric Power Grid

There are three United States power grids, each dependent upon the Internet to connect thousands of individual elements, including generating sources, transmission lines, and local power distribution companies. Some 140 control centers “wheel” power as needed throughout the grids. The interdependence of the connected utilities makes them subject to attacks, both physical and cyber, that can disable an entire grid. They thus become prime targets in cyberwarfare.


The FBI, in January 2015, revealed an increase in the illegal encryption of municipal computer files, with a ransom payment demanded for access. The FBI announcement noted that “your computer screen freezes with a pop-up message—supposedly from the FBI or another federal agency—saying that because you violated some sort of federal law your computer will remain locked until you pay a fine. Or you get a message telling you that your personal files have been encrypted and you have to pay to get the key needed to decrypt them.”


The ransom might vary from hundreds to thousands of dollars, with the threat of permanent destruction of the files if not paid. The FBI with its partners has successfully neutralized some of the more significant scams, but asks that it be informed of any ransomware scheme or other cyber fraud at It also recommends updated antivirus software, automated patches for operating systems and web browsers, strong passwords, a pop-up blocker, and downloading software only from sites you know and trust.

By 2019, the number of cyberattacks had increased, a New York Times front-page article calling it the “Year of Cyberattacks.”  Some 22 cities in Texas were held hostage for millions of dollars. Nationwide, more than 40 municipalities were cyberattack victims. Some of the attacks originated in the United States, but most were identified as coming from Eastern Europe or Iran. Municipal facilities victimized included hospitals, court systems, government offices, police patrol cars, and public safety systems.

The Bottom Line

On balance, we seem to be failing in our defense against cyberattacks of any kind. Its most serious consequence will be its use in international cyberwarfare, in which it could yield equal or greater pain and destruction than would nuclear weaponry alone.


  • IEEE European Public Policy Webinar on Cybersecurity. Dec. 17, 2019.
  • “Holding Data Hostage: The Perfect Internet Crime,” MIT Technology Review , retrieved Aug. 26, 2019.
  • Fernandez, M., Sanger, D., and Martinez, M. T., “Hackers Cripple Dozens of Cities, Hunting Ransom: Year of Cyberattacks,” The New York Times, 23, 2019.
  • Ransomware on the Rise: FBI and Partners Working to Combat this Cyber Threat, Jan. 20, 2015 , retrieved Aug. 26, 2019.
  • Chao, T., Pham, T., and Seregine, M., The Dangers of Technological Progress, , retrieved Aug. 20, 2019.
  • Lusthaus, J., “In Eastern Europe, A Criminal Silicon Valley Thrives,” The New York Times, 30, 2019.
  • Wilbanks, L., “What’s Your IT Risk Approach?,” Computing Edge, Nov. 2019.
  • Greenberg, A., Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers, Doubleday, 2019.
  • Newman, L. H., “The Hail Mary Plan to Restart a Hacked U.S. Electric Grid,” Wired, 14, 2018.
  • Christiansen, D., “Cyber Gridlock,” IEEE-USA Insight, Sept. 20, 2016.
  • Koppel, T., Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, Crown Publishers, 2015.
  • Christiansen, D., “Smart Machines and Artificial Intelligence,” IEEE-USA Insight, Aug. 4, 2018.
  • Everett, J., “Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation, and Characterization Systems (RADICS),” retrieved Aug. 26, 2016.
  • Lucky, R. W., “When Innovation and Ethics Collide,” IEEE Spectrum, July, 2019.
  • Hurlburt, G., “How Much to Trust Artificial Intelligence?,” IT Professional, 2017.

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. He can be reached at

Donald Christiansen

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. His Backscatter columns can be found here.

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