Picture the Earth being struck by a massive body hurtling out of space, resulting in a tremendous explosion that would equal the force of millions of tons of TNT.
Think of the immediate damage that would occur from the force of such a blast and the unthinkable heat extending literally hundreds of miles around the impact point. But the impact would also have thrown up tons of debris into the atmosphere. The entire Earth would be enveloped in a thick, dark, dusty cloud that would block any sunlight from touching down anywhere.
Think of the fear, panic and chaos that would ensue as temperatures began dropping precipitously, perhaps hurling humanity, at least temporarily, into a new ice age.
Consider how such a nightmare scenario would affect us all if the cloud persisted for weeks, months–even years.
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Some scientists believe this is actually part of what happened to our planet far back in its history. Science buffs will recall that one theory of how the dinosaurs became extinct is that a huge asteroid hit the Earth, creating a global cloud that blocked sunlight, causing tremendous climatic changes that eventually killed the huge creatures off.
Today, there are some who believe that a terrorist strike at our interconnected computer systems could have the same kind of cataclysmic effect on the worldwide economy.
While news media are focusing on the prospect of a biological attack in the wake of the events of Sept. 11, our computer systems remain vulnerable to a cyber-attack that could literally bring business activity to a grinding halt–not only in the U.S., but worldwide.
According to Clint Harris, vice president at Conning & Company, a research organization based in Hartford, Conn., there is “tremendous concern in terms of loss if there are viruses that could bring down the entire Internet. That is a potential.”
Harris compares the impact on financial services of the Internet going down to that of “an asteroid striking the Earth.”
Lets stop and consider that kind of impact for a moment. Financial services, as well as most other industries, has come to rely heavily on the Internet for transactions, marketing, day-to-day operations and even distribution (although the insurance sector neednt worry about the latter).
Were the entire Internet to fail, literally millions of transactions might be lost, or at best take weeks to recover and be recorded on paper. On the insurance side, communications among brokers and carriers and customers would be seriously compromised. Certainly all business activities that use e-mail would immediately cease.
And, if such an attack were to also affect telephone communications, how would any financial commerce take place?
Unquestionably, such a huge blow to our communications infrastructure would severely damage an already reeling economy. Insurance claims from failed businesses just might exceed the ability of companies to pay them.
The results would be chaoticjust the sort of thing that would make a terrorist smile.
Harris is the author of a study entitled “Cyber-Security for Insurers: The Virtual Fortress?” Among other things, that studythe release of which preceded the attacksconcludes that the industrys “somewhat laggard entry” into online distribution of policies and services “may now be exposing their customers, business partners and themselves to massive losses caused by breaches in security.”
Why is insurance particularly vulnerable? First, says Harris, insurers have tremendous assets, which makes them a target. “Insurance is also a target because of its reliance on interconnectivity with other enterprises and businesses, including agents and branch offices,” he adds.
Then there is the fact that most insurers still utilize multiple computer systems, including legacy systems, says Harris. “Multiple systems complicate the systems environment, and the greater the complication, the greater the potential for vulnerability.”
The specific threats to insurance and other business systems include denial of service attacks and damaging code that can destroy critical files. With denial of service attacks, Web sites are deluged with bogus e-mails and requests to the point that they function very slowly or not at allthus, denying service to those who legitimately want to use them.
Even greater danger, however, may be posed by hackers who create malicious code that alters or destroys critical data, Harris notes.
“No matter what you do, you will never be totally secure,” says Harris. He adds that a coordinated cyber-attack on the U.S.and perhaps all of the free world”is certainly possible.”