Is AI about to give rise to next-gen cyber terrorism?

Photo by Alejandro Mendoza on Unsplash.

Chinese Government Poses ‘Broad and Unrelenting’ Threat to U.S. Critical Infrastructure, FBI Director Says,” warned the FBI on April 18, 2024.

Wray’s dire injunction that “The PRC [People’s Republic of China] has made it clear that it considers every sector that makes our society run as fair game in its bid to dominate on the world stage, and that its plan is to land low blows against civilian infrastructure to try to induce panic and break America’s will to resist” caps months of his warnings about cyber threats.

China isn’t the only potential player. Ransomware has also been appearing more regularly in the news.

Hackers Behind the Change Healthcare Ransomware Attack Just Received a $22 Million Payment,” noted Andy Greenberg for Wired on March 4, 2024. “The transaction, visible on Bitcoin’s blockchain, suggests the victim of one of the worst ransomware attacks in years may have paid a very large ransom.”

“The ransomware attack targeting medical firm Change Healthcare has been one of the most disruptive in years, crippling pharmacies across the US — including those in hospitals — and leading to serious snags in the delivery of prescription drugs nationwide for 10 days and counting,” noted Greenberg. “Now, a dispute within the criminal underground has revealed a new development in that unfolding debacle: One of the partners of the hackers behind the attack points out that those hackers, a group known as AlphV or BlackCat, received a $22 million transaction that looks very much like a large ransom payment.”

“On March 1, a Bitcoin address connected to AlphV received 350 bitcoins in a single transaction, or close to $22 million based on exchange rates at the time,” Greenberg speculated. “Then, two days later, someone describing themselves as an affiliate of AlphV — one of the hackers who work with the group to penetrate victim networks — posted to the cybercriminal underground forum RAMP that AlphV had cheated them out of their share of the Change Healthcare ransom, pointing to the publicly visible $22 million transaction on Bitcoin’s blockchain as proof.”

Are Greenberg’s speculations correct? He is far from the only cyber-authority warning of potential dangers.

“‘Cyber-physical attacks’ fueled by AI are a growing threat, experts say,” reported Kevin Williams for CNBC on March 3, 2024. “FBI Director Christopher Wray said Chinese government hackers are targeting water treatment plans, the electrical grid, transportation systems and other critical infrastructure inside the U.S.”

“MIT researchers have simulated cyberattacks in the lab that can trigger fires and explosions in equipment such as motors, pumps, valves and gauges,” Williams noted ominously, though he added that “Attacks on physical infrastructure would be tantamount to war, and so far, that is something nation-states have avoided.”

“Some experts, though, are worried that with the arrival of widespread artificial intelligence in the hands of hackers — both lone wolves and nation-states — we may be entering the era of the ‘cyber-physical attack,’” Williams fretted.

“Stuart Madnick, an MIT professor of engineering systems and co-founder of Cybersecurity at MIT Sloan (CAMS), has studied and written about the cyber-physical nexus,” added Williams. “He said with the widespread arrival of generative AI, concerns about physical attacks being the next phase of cybercrime have grown.”

“Madnick said that he and his team have simulated cyberattacks in the lab, resulting in explosions,” Williams warned. “They were able to hack into computer-controlled motors with pumps and make them incinerate. Attacks that cause temperature gauges to malfunction, pressure values to jam, and circuits to be circumvented can also cause blasts in lab settings. Such an outcome, Madnick said, would do far more than simply taking a system offline for a while, as a typical cyberattack does.”

The FBI has been warning of an increased threat level since the October 7 terrorist attack against Israel by Hamas-led forces.

“The FBI is investigating ‘thousands’ of threats related to the Israel–Hamas conflict,” reported Daniel Boguslaw for The Intercept on March 14, 2024.

Terrorist Threat to US Has Reached ‘Whole Other Level,’ FBI’s Wray Warns,” Bloomberg’s Peter Marin updated readers on March 12, 2024.

“Terrorist threats toward the US have reached a ‘whole other level’ from the already heightened situation before the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and its response, FBI Director Christopher Wray said Tuesday,” Marin reported. “

“You’ve seen a veritable rogue’s gallery of foreign terrorist organizations calling for terrorist attacks against us in a way that we haven’t seen in a long, long time,” FBI Director Wray said recently. He raised other national security concerns as well.

Terrorists Using Fake IDs To Cross Border Raises Red Flags for FBI Director,” reported Nick Mordowanec for Newsweek on March 12, 2024.

“FBI Director Christopher Wray has warned that known or suspected terrorists who use fake identification after crossing the southern border is ‘a big concern’ for the national intelligence community,” revealed Mordowanec. “Wray made the remarks Tuesday in front of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, as part of its 2024 Annual Threat Assessment hearing with the U.S. intelligence community.”

“The hearing emphasized the significant increase in threats against the U.S. made by foreign entities, including China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, in addition to how the U.S.-Mexico border is another method for bad actors to infiltrate the nation,” he added. “Wray also told Select Committee Chairman Michael Turner, a Republican congressman from Ohio, that over the past five years, the FBI has seen an increase in the number of known or suspected terrorists attempting to cross the southern border.”

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)