By Leischen Stelter
The movie The Matrix depicts an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, but not even this fantastical Hollywood movie captures the realistic damage such an attack would have on the nation’s computer systems.
“An EMP attack is a major national security concern and an important cybersecurity protection issue,” said Dr. Clay Wilson, program director for Cybersecurity graduate studies at American Military University during a podcast presentation. Dr. Wilson is a former analyst for national defense policy at the Congressional Research Service. In this position, he analyzed cyber intelligence reports for the U.S. Congress and NATO committees on net-centric warfare, cybersecurity, nanotechnology, and other vulnerabilities of high-technology military systems and critical infrastructures..
“During my research, it became clear that civilian systems would be vulnerable if there was ever an EMP attack launched against the United States,” he said. “It is extremely important for APUS students studying cybersecurity to understand that this is a major cybersecurity threat. Cybersecurity professionals must know how an EMP works, how vulnerable computer systems are, and how to protect against such an attack.”
What is an EMP?
An EMP is a quick, powerful blast of electromagnetic energy that ranges across a significant portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. “This electronic pulse can instantaneously overload computer circuitry and fry components,” Dr. Wilson said.
[Related Content: Is Your Agency Prepared for the Aftermath of an EMP or “Grid Collapse”?]
How is Such an Attack Detonated?
There are two primary ways for an EMP to be implemented. The first is for a nuclear detonation high in the atmosphere. “Any country that has access to a nuclear component and a reasonably accurate missile to launch it to a high altitude, can produce an EMP and disrupt computer systems,” he said.
The other way is through the use of high levels of microwave energy. “It’s possible to create microwave device that can focus energy using an antenna in something as small as a suitcase,” said Dr. Wilson. “Such a device is available for sale over the Internet because there are some commercial uses for it. Someone with malicious intent could modify this device and use it to disrupt computers at, say, air traffic control towers or financial computers on Wall Street.”
The Impacts of an EMP Attack
Another misconception that movies like The Matrix propagate is the reality of the damage caused by an EMP. Unlike in the movie, systems can’t simply be turned off to protect them against an EMP.
“Many times an EMP is powerful enough that it doesn’t matter if the system is on or off—the energy flows right through system and overloads the circuitry and fries or melts the components,” said Dr. Wilson.
The reality is that the majority of civilian computer systems, which operate a significant amount of the nation’s critical infrastructure, are largely unprotected. Take the nation’s electric power grid, for example. If a large electric transformer was hit by an EMP it would have to be replaced with new equipment. Undamaged equipment would only be found beyond the zone of the EMP, which could be far away.
If such a large-scale attack happened, it is estimated that within 12 months of a nationwide blackout, up to 90 percent of the U.S. population could possibly perish from starvation, disease and societal breakdown, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal.
How to Protect Against an Attack?
It is very difficult to protect against an EMP. One popular way to protect a system is by using a faraday cage, which is an enclosure that routes energy around sensitive circuitry. However, a faraday cage must be constructed very precisely—even the smallest hole will allow energy to damage computer components.
It is important for cybersecurity professionals to understand the causes and characteristics of EMP and how a directed burst of high energy can damage today’s vulnerable computer systems and electrical systems.
You can listen to more commentary by Dr. Wilson about the impacts of an EMP attack in this podcast, Clearing up Misperceptions on Electronmagnetic Pulse Implications.