Cyber Worries Help Push Doomsday Clock Closer to Midnight

The hands on the iconic “Doomsday Clock” moved to just 100 seconds
to midnight last month. That is the closest they have come to the final hour since its creation in 1947.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science
and Security Board, in consultation with the Bulletin’s Board of
Sponsors, made the unprecedented decision to express the time remaining in seconds rather than minutes when the time was adjusted from 2 minutes to 100 seconds to midnight.

The time displayed on the clock has moved closer to midnight in three of the last four
years. The last time it moved was in 2018, with a forward jump of 30 seconds. It moved to 2 1/2 minutes to midnight in 2017 from its prior setting of 3 minutes to
midnight. There was no adjustment last year, but with
the arrival of 2020 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists noted new threats.

In addition to the two “simultaneous existential dangers” of
nuclear war and climate change, the world now faces the threat
multiplier of cyber-enabled information warfare.

The decision to move
the hands forward by 20 seconds was made in part because world leaders
have allowed the international political infrastructure for
containing this potential cyberthreat to erode.

“It is 100 seconds to midnight,” warned Rachel Bronson, president and
CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “We are now expressing how
close the world is to catastrophe in seconds — not hours, or even
minutes. It is the closest to Doomsday we have ever been in the
history of the Doomsday Clock. We now face a true emergency — an
absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any
margin for error or further delay.”

December 2020 will mark the 75th anniversary of the first edition of
the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It originally was a six-page,
black-and-white bulletin, which evolved into a magazine. It was
created in response to fears that the atomic bomb, which had been used
against Japan in August of 1945 to end the Second World War, would be “only the first of many dangerous presents from the Pandora’s Box of
modern science.”

Origins of the Clock and Nuclear Armageddon

The Doomsday Clock, which has been maintained since 1947, is
essentially a metaphor for threats to humanity from unchecked
scientific and technical advances. The clock’s original setting in
1947 was 7 minutes to midnight, and over the years it was set
backward and forward a total of 24 times.

It typically is assessed in January of each year.

The largest-ever number of minutes to midnight was 17 in 1991, when the
United States and Soviet Union signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction
Treaty (START I), followed by the Soviet Union dissolving on Dec. 26 of that year. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain,
along with the reunification of Germany a year earlier, already had added 4 minutes to the clock.

In 1995, global military spending, as well as concerns about
post-Soviet nuclear proliferation, moved the clock 3 minutes closer
to midnight — 14 minutes in total. That number was reduced to 9
minutes to midnight three years later, following India’s and Pakistan’s
testing of nuclear weapons.

Two more minutes were cut in 2002 due to
concerns over a nuclear terrorist attack and the fears that vast
amounts of weapon-grade nuclear materials were largely unsecured or
otherwise unaccounted for worldwide.

2010 saw the last time a minute was added. That followed a new
START agreement, as well as the 2009 United Nations Climate Change
Conference, which called for the developing and industrialized nations
to agree to take responsibility for carbon emissions.

New Fears

Most perceptions about the Doomsday Clock’s time to midnight are that
it always has been based on the threat posed by nuclear weapons and
the potential for an atomic war. However, other factors have been
considered by the Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists, including energy, weapons, diplomacy and climate
science. In recent years they also have considered terrorist threats and climate change.

Bioterrorism and artificial intelligence also could be seen
as potential sources of threats that could inch humanity closer to
doomsday.

Cyberwarfare is a new factor — specifically cyber-enabled
information warfare. It could include everything from
state-sponsored propaganda to “deepfakes” to the spread of
misinformation online. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned
that cyber-based disinformation could cause corruption of the
information ecosphere on which democracy and public decision making
depend.

Moreover, many governments are utilizing cyber-enabled disinformation
campaigns as a way to sow distrust among rival powers. It has been
called out as threat to the common good.

“In the wrong hands, technology absolutely creates a threat to
humankind that is on the same scale as current weapons technology,”
warned Bill Santos, president of Scottsdale, Arizona-base Cerberus Sentinel.

“Improperly used or maliciously deployed, technology can cripple
critical infrastructure, upset financial systems, and disable many of
the systems we depend on for our survival and happiness,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Reducing the Threat Vectors

New arms treaties and greater cooperation among nations have allowed
the doomsday clock to be set back — gaining precious seconds, or in
some cases even minutes. However, the new threats are so great that
there may be no easy way of addressing them and regaining time
before the hands strike the proverbial midnight.

“The risk of cyberwarfare is on par with nuclear risk and climate
change — and it may even pose a greater risk than both,” explained
Marc Gaffan, CEO of Israel-based cybersecurity firm Hysolate.

“A decade ago, cyberthreats had somewhat manageable impacts — data
theft that would rock the stability of the organization, or monetary
loss that would affect performance and a company’s stock price for a
couple years,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Today cyberattacks can result in serious business disruption that is
far beyond either data theft or monetary losses. A cyberattack could
pose a threat to all aspects of infrastructure, from power grids to
communication networks.

“Nation-state attacks like this stem back to 2010 with Stuxnet,” noted Gaffan.

The Stuxnet attack, which likely was conducted as a joint
American-Israeli effort, successfully crippled Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian hackers were believed to be responsible for a 2018 cyberattack against a Saudi petrochemical facility.

There was no loss of life in either attack, but each increased
regional tensions. Moreover, such attacks could result in physical
equipment failures that would lead to human casualties.

It’s far too easy “for malicious attackers to cause physical damage” said Gaffan, “and the impact is far too great for this to not be a significant factor driving us closer to midnight.”

Even more worrisome is the fact that much of our modern infrastructure
isn’t as secure as it could be.

“The unfortunate truth also is that the power grid and other national
operations that literally keep the lights on are not built with the
most sound security in place to prevent an attack from causing a
catastrophic blackout or causing fatal medical device failures,” said Gaffan.

Turn Back Time

It might be difficult to put time back on the Doomsday Clock,
but it’s not impossible. Here is where cybersecurity as a defensive tool
could be crucial. The world could be safer if more governments, companies and
individuals all paid greater attention to cybersecurity.

“Education and awareness can help move the hands back,” said Gaffan.

“Ultimately, we as a society need to start thinking of security
first — and not as an afterthought — in everything we do,” he urged.

To that end, security needs to be built into the core architecture of
everything — from the software and applications that are being built
today to the improvement of legacy systems and infrastructures that
are currently in place.

However, due to advancements in technology, the risk of cyberwarfare will always be with us, warned Gaffan.

“The best we can do is mitigate the risk by staying one step ahead of
attackers in building devices and an infrastructure that are
secure-by-design,” he argued.

The defense against this threat goes beyond the
technology itself, suggested Cerberus Sentinel’s Santos.

“We need to create a comprehensive culture of security at the
government, corporate and individual level that is aware of this
threat and understands the steps each can take to address it,” he said.

This could begin with education to better understand the unique set of
risks a completely connected civilization faces.

“It is followed with an understanding of what can be done, at every
level, to address or reduce these risks,” said Santos. “We need to
think of security holistically, understanding that it is an
existential risk that affects aspects of our interconnected lives. We
are far too dependent on technology to address our security needs.
True cybersecurity is a culture.”


Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and FoxNews.com.
Email Peter.

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