Cyber-attacks on an American city

April 24, 2009
Photo: Damien Cox, Flickr

Photo: Damien Cox, Flickr

 

Slashdot reports on a mysterious case of high tech urban sabotage in California, with lessons for first responders in complex urban environments.

Software innovator Bruce Perens writes,

Just after midnight on Thursday, April 9, unidentified attackers climbed down four manholes serving the Northern California city of Morgan Hill and cut eight fiber cables in what appears to have been an organized attack on the electronic infrastructure of an American city. Its implications, though startling, have gone almost un-reported.

“That attack demonstrated a severe fault in American infrastructure: its centralization. The city of Morgan Hill and parts of three counties lost 911 service, cellular mobile telephone communications, land-line telephone, DSL internet and private networks, central station fire and burglar alarms, ATMs, credit card terminals, and monitoring of critical utilities. In addition, resources that should not have failed, like the local hospital’s internal computer network, proved to be dependent on external resources, leaving the hospital with a “paper system” for the day”

This is an interesting example of emerging threats to urban centres in the future, along the lines of previous posts on attacking the electric grid system.   The entire article, found here, is well worth reading.  

In particular, Bruce has a discussion of the lessons learned from this mysterious attack:

The first lesson is what stayed up: stand-alone radio systems and not much else. Cell phones failed. Cellular towers can not, in general, connect phone calls on their own, even if both phones are near the same tower. They communicate with a central switching computer to operate, and when that system doesn’t respond, they’re useless. But police and fire authorities still had internal communications via two-way radio.

Very rich food for thought about the future of complex urban emergencies.


Mapping disasters in 3D

April 5, 2009

 

Robin Murphy from Texas A&M University (TAMU) create software to reconstruct 3D scenes of disasters from 2d photographs taken by flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s).

Picture this; an earthquake devastates a major Chinese city.  Rubble is everywhere, no one knows where the survivors are.  

A team of researchers suggests a new system may help first responders gain a better understanding of their environment through the use of flying robots and 3D reconstruction software.  

[The system] deploys several small unmanned air vehicles (SUAVs), such as AirRobot quadrotors, to take snapshots of the rubble. The pictures are then uploaded to a software program called RubbleViewer, which quickly builds a three-dimensional map of the area that users can intuitively navigate. More efficient than drawing by hand, this system is also cheaper and more portable than the alternative–using helicopter-mounted lasers to map the rubble.

Last time I checked “using helicopter mounted lasers to map the rubble” was still a tad beyond most humanitarian budgets.  But who knows what wonders the G20 stimulus package might provide?  In any case, it’s an interesting proof of concept that could be scaled to market over time, thus lowering the price and becoming potentially useful to combat-style first responders in urban environments in the future.


NASA, space storms and social collapse

March 27, 2009

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The New Scientist reports on a recent NASA study evaluating the risk of solar plasma flares.

Not your average humanitarian issue but interesting none the less:

It is midnight on 22 September 2012 and the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of colourful light. Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is short-lived. Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment. Then all the lights in the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US is without power.

A year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation’s infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also struggling to recover from the same fateful event – a violent storm, 150 million kilometres away on the surface of the sun.

It sounds ridiculous. Surely the sun couldn’t create so profound a disaster on Earth. Yet an extraordinary report funded by NASA and issued by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in January this year claims it could do just that.

 

Full report, “Severe Space Weather Events–Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts” (for purchase).  

Full article, “Space storm alert: 90 seconds from catastrophe


Beddington: World faces perfect storm in 2030

March 25, 2009

In a statement which has already gotten much press elsewhere, the UK’s chief scientist Prof. John Beddington suggests we face a “perfect storm”of crisis drivers by 2030.

The Guardian reports, 

A “perfect storm” of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions, the UK government’s chief scientist will warn tomorrow.

“We head into a perfect storm in 2030, because all of these things are operating on the same time frame,” Beddington told the Guardian.

“If we don’t address this, we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move out to avoid food and water shortages,” he added.

It is music to our ears to hear such well placed politicians and scientists reflecting the realities of tomorrow’s complex, interlinked and massively vulnerable world.

 


US researchers find disaster relief laws unsuitable for modern threats

March 25, 2009

New York University Professor Mitchell Moss suggests in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, that US Federal disaster relief legislation is dangerously out of date and must be reformed to provide for rapid relief after a catastrophe.

The paper argues that the main US Federal Disaster laws, in the form of the Stafford Act, is too cumbersome to be of use for today’s complex crises.  The report’s author argues that the laws:

 

  • Not recognizing 21st century threats such as chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological attacks or accidents as legal grounds for a major disaster declaration by the President; 
  • Fail to establish a difference between the scale of rural and urban disaster – the Stafford Act offers the same level of aid for a blizzard in a rural community as it does for a major earthquake in a metropolis. 

It goes on to suggest that US lawmakers should,

  • Amend the definition of a “major disaster” to recognize 21st century threats such as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks and accidents; 
  • Create a level of disaster specifically for “catastrophes” to cover incidents such as Hurricane Katrina and September 11 and to provide increased levels of aid beyond that provided at the “major disaster” levels

The press release can be found here and the full paper here.


Nicholas Stern, “Politicians aren’t getting the message”

March 13, 2009

Guardian reporters reflect on Nicholas Stern’s comments;

Do politicians really know what will happen if we hit 3, 4, 5 degree rises in temperature?  I don’t think they do.  The politicians can tell you we can still hit a target of 2 degrees.  The scientists won’t.  People here are saying that 2 degrees is gone, we’re going to be lucky to limit rise to 3 degrees, but actually we’re looking more like 4 degrees.

4 degrees would be extinction for huge numbers of species, massive drought and famine for millions of people.

Stern himself is quoted:

Do the politicians understand just how difficult it could be? Just how devastating four, five, six degrees centigrade would be? I think not yet. Looking back, the Stern review underestimated the risks and underestimated the damage from inaction.


New maps of risk show USA and China to top global ranking for economic loss due to natural disasters

March 11, 2009

maps

From the press release of the risk mapping firm, Maplecroft:

In 2008 natural disasters cost the world US$200 billion. Global maps, produced by risk specialists Maplecroft, show the United States and China to bear about 90% of this burden and be the countries most susceptible to economic losses.

Whilst the human impact of natural disasters is predominantly concentrated in developing countries, with 90% of deaths occurring in these regions, the increase in both frequency and severity of climate related disasters is increasingly impacting upon developed and emerging economies including China.

So far this century, more than 800,000 people have been killed by natural disasters, more than 2 billion have been affected, and damage costs total over US$800 billion. Whilst disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes can not be prevented, we can reduce the risk they pose to business and society by reducing our vulnerability. We can do this by mapping and assessing the risk, being better prepared and responding more effectively when potentially disastrous natural events occur. 

A PDF of the full press release can be found here.


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