Could hackers trigger a nuclear war?

Donald Trump once boasted that his red button is bigger than Kim Jong-un’s, but perhaps he should be more concerned about the nuclear threat posed by hackers.

A report issued in January by international-affairs think tank Chatham House warned that new nuclear technology is vulnerable to a cyber- attack. It said a hack could have “catastrophic” consequences, causing countries to launch missiles at each other.

The Cybersecurity of Nuclear Weapons Systems: Threats, Vulnerabilities and Consequences paper states that the risk of sabotage is “high and increasing” from both terrorist groups and hackers backed by national governments, particularly at times of “heightened tension”. Although such risks have existed for some time, it says, they escalate with every new digital component added to a nuclear system.

It points out that when nuclear-weapons systems were first developed, computers were much more basic than they are now, and so little thought was given to the dangers of hacking.

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These days, hackers wouldn’t need to gain remote access to nuclear systems to trigger armageddon – they would simply need to trick a country into thinking it’s being attacked, releasing false information that appears to come from a legitimate source.

If this coincides with a cyber-attack that knocks out their computer system, then a country may mistakenly believe it is also under physical attack, and launch missiles to retaliate.

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Chatham House says that countries with nuclear weapons should add measures into every part of their defence system – command, control and communication – that reduce the risk of an attack. It accuses governments of not taking the threat seriously, a failing that’s made worse by the lack of staff skilled enough to deal with the threats. But the risks also stretch to companies involved in making weapons, the report says. Hackers could inject malware during the manufacturing process.

The report warns of serious consequences even if a hack doesn’t lead to war, because it would undermine public trust in the nuclear deterrent.

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To illustrate the potential of cyber-warfare, Chatham House cites reports that the US may have hacked North Korea’s missile systems last year in order to cause test failures. It also claims that the UK’s Trident submarines could be hacked, and that the silos where the US’s nuclear-tipped Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles are kept “are believed to be particularly vulnerable to cyber-attacks”.

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There’s no reason to believe that these flaws don’t also endanger the other nuclear states: Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel. The report calls upon “academia and civil society” in these countries to encourage their governments to release more information. It added: “After all, it is the public that will pay the ultimate price for complacency regarding cyber-security of nuclear weapons systems”.

But the report accepted that authorities are usually reluctant to reveal details. When Trident was upgraded in 2016, the Ministry of Defence would only say that “the deterrent remains safe and secure”.

Nobody would expect transparency from Vladimir Putin, but he revealed last year that he understands the strategic importance of cyber-warfare when he said that whoever leads artificial-intelligence development will dominate the world. Russia, says the report, is “working on a new spoofing device that can imitate jets, rockets or a missile attack and thus fool defence systems”. If that proves effective, then the size of anyone’s red button won’t matter one bit.

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