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Opinion: Killware Threatens Lives as Much as It Does Systems

The idea behind killware, a new type of cyber attack, is to disable or manipulate the electronic or computer equipment that humans depend on, resulting in potential harm or death to individuals.

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(TNS) — Last week, I had the privilege of being a photo coach in the Picture Kentucky photojournalism workshop hosted by the University of Kentucky's journalism department.

One of the students I was mentoring had a photo project that profiled a family who is living off the grid, meaning they aren't connected to or served by publicly or privately managed utilities. He did a great job on his photo essay, but I thought the idea of living off the grid was quaint, if not completely anachronistic.

Then I came home and read a story on killware, the latest type of cyber attack. We have already seen the impact of ransomware, a kind of attack that holds a computer system hostage until a ransom is paid. Killware is a malicious brand of hacking that can actually kill human beings by disabling or changing the electronic and computer equipment we depend upon.

That story was like reading science fiction, but these attacks are, unfortunately, real. If they hit a hospital, a water system, a manufacturing facility or even a city's fire, medical or police services, it could truly cost human lives.

To make matters worse, if your home is connected to the Internet, your home is vulnerable. How many people now have alarm systems with Internet connectivity, which permits your home security service to monitor your house for safety reasons, such as fire or the presence of intruders? How many homes use integrated online systems to manage everything through cellphones? If you can access it remotely, so can a hacker.

You go to bed at night feeling secure with your alarm all set, but if a hacker disables it, he could waltz right in as if no alarm were even there. Since this is as malicious as it is vicious, a hacker could reset your HVAC system to run all the time while you are gone and create a huge power bill. Perhaps he could even overload your system and cause a fire.

Expand that threat to all the customers served by a particular power company. An entire electrical grid could be shut down or overloaded by a killware attack. Maybe that family living off the grid is onto something. The more we are interconnected, the more vulnerable we become.

And here is the pivotal question. Why would anyone do something like this?

Why would anyone get pleasure or joy by endangering other people? That is so perverse it blows my mind. These people are no different from armed robbers or murderers, and we must view them as such.

Potentially, they can screw up anything from air traffic control systems to water and sanitation systems or health care. Just imagine the damage that could be done by hacking into a hospital's system and changing the drug orders for patients.

Is this kind of hacking any different from someone pulling the trigger on a gun?

It isn't, and we must form ways of catching and punishing these people as severely as we would a person committing armed robbery or cold-blooded murder. But how many local law enforcement agencies have the financial resources or the human resources to fight this kind of crime? I can't imagine very many agencies could, at least not right now, but online crime is certainly forcing changes in law enforcement.

Tuscaloosa police recently purchased a great deal of equipment to help their cyber crimes unit deal with threats in the online environment, threats that are growing in both scope and complexity.

The old ways of policing are certainly being stressed by cyber crime; however, one of the great things about our law enforcement officers is their demonstrated ability to adapt to new types of crime and threats of crime.

Look at how policing and law enforcement changed after the 9/11 attacks. So much of the reason we still live securely in this nation is thanks to how law enforcement from the national level all the way down to the local level changed their methods of operation. Many enforcement and security aspects changed, including integrating communications systems, beefing up the weaponry available to local police departments and increased physical security at transportation hubs.

While law enforcement was behind on terrorism 20 years ago, it has quickly caught up and done a great job of preventing terror attacks in our country. It is that same resilience and ability to adapt to a rapidly changing threat environment that gives hope and confidence they will handle this threat as well.

Everyone from individual citizens to businesses and service providers of every type will have to do their part by keeping cybersecurity measures as up to date as possible and by frankly examining which systems actually need to be managed in an online environment and which systems do not.

"If you see something, say something," is a program implemented all over the country. There might well have to be some similar effort to help make the public aware of cybersecurity. Almost all of us have something on the line because our lives are so connected to the online environment.

©2021 The Tuscaloosa News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.