There’s a lot of talk about cyber-warfare right now. With Russia invading Ukraine and President Biden threatening to launch an offensive cyber-attack as a consequence, the chances of many American citizens being affected by an attack is high.
The United States is already the target of many cyber-attack events and their frequency has been growing in recent years. Their effects are often contained to a business, an individual or a small community. But the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack in 2020 should act as a warning to everyone that large geographic areas can be affected too. Most hackers are in it for the money, not to harm people. That wouldn’t likely be true in the case of a military cyber-attack.
Having a digital culture means that any sector of society can potentially be affected by computer systems attacks. Preventing cyber-attacks is all about stopping threats from gaining control of computer systems. Preparing for cyber-attack disruptions, however, has very little to do with computers and technology. It’s very similar to preparing for a natural disaster.
If your power is interrupted, you have to have alternative power, heating/cooling and lighting. If cellular communications, digital TV broadcasts, or the internet go down, how will you communicate or get information? If water distribution gets stopped, what would you drink?
With an already hobbled international supply chain, an attack on logistics systems could mean even fewer things will make it to store shelves. Do you have enough food on hand to wait out the next delivery truck?
Even if there are supplies available, can you pay for them? Credit card processing is done almost exclusively through internet connected devices. If the internet is not available or the attack targeted the processing software or network, you might be out of luck.
A military cyber-attack might not only aim to shut down services. A communications attack might be used to broadcast propaganda. This could be through email, social media, radio, television, text messages, etc. We already live with extreme deception and misinformation in our media in this country and foreign intervention will seek to capitalize on that.
None of this is intended to be dramatic or to scare you. It should make you to think about the real dangers that exist in today’s world. The chances of all of the above happening at once are low. But even one of these scenarios can cause havoc on your daily routine and compromise your personal security.
Being prepared for a cyber-attack or a natural disaster is not overreacting. It’s being smart. The following are a few ways you can prepare in the event they do happen.
It should go without saying that the time to prepare for cyber-attacks, or any natural or societal crisis, is now, not right when the crisis occurs or after. If attacks do happen and services are shut down for a period of time, would you have what you need to sit it out comfortably? Consider that stores will either run out of products quickly or not be open at all. If you think the supply chain is tenuous now, imagine it a hundred times worse.
The first thing you want to do to protect yourself in the event of a cyber-attack is to make sure you are practicing good cyber hygiene and attack prevention. The vast majority of cyber-attacks against individuals, businesses and governments are the result of social engineering or easy-to-guess passwords.
It might seem that individual computer security is a completely separate subject from national security and nation state threats. That’s not at all the case. A compromised personal computer can be used by a hacker to attack other personal computers, forming a network of seemingly innocent systems (called a botnet) that are under the control of the hacker.
This botnet can stay dormant for a long time before being woken up by the hacker. It can then perform an attack known as a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack where thousands of botnet nodes attack a target network and overload it to the point it stops working properly. This can be devastating for business and government systems and services.
Compromised personal computers can also be used to send out spam email or even emails with malicious software attached. You can see how any cyber-attack at any level is a threat to anyone else you are connected with online.
The following recommendations will help you strengthen your online safety and in turn, the safety and security of the Country.
- Use strong passwords. Passwords should be a minimum of 8 characters but the longer the better. Use a mix of upper and lower case letters as well as numbers and special characters.
- Don’t reuse passwords, even if they are really strong ones.
- Don’t store passwords in the browser. You can turn off your browser’s ability to save passwords so it won’t prompt you to do so.
- Sign up for a password manager like LastPass, 1Password, or Bitwarden. Password managers give you an easy way to track, store and use passwords online while keeping them secure. Managers give you an easy way to avoid the tendency to reuse passwords and they often come with built-in password generators to help you come up with strong ones.
- Set up two factor authentication (2FA) if available (I use the Authy app for all 2FA codes) for any online accounts that offer the service.
- Consider using a pseudonym for usernames if appropriate
- Create a new email account for signing up with Social Media sites
- Never post email addresses, phone numbers, and other private or identifying information on social media.
- Delete accounts you no longer need if possible.
- Make sure you only go to secured and encrypted sites (they use HTTPS instead of HTTP). Never enter passwords or other sensitive data into a site that is not secured. Never make purchases from an unsecured site. Set your browser to only open HTTPS sites.
- Be careful when clicking links or downloading files. Is the site you are interacting with actually the site you think it is?
- Update your computer operating system and all installed applications as soon as they are available. Turn on automatic updating if your application provides it. Updates include security patches to stop attackers before they can strike.
- If you use a Windows computer, turn on Windows Defender. Also, download Malwarebytes and run scans from time-to-time.
- Delete programs and applications that you no longer use from your computer.
- Never trust emails. Never download email attachments unless you are absolutely sure who sent them. If anything seems off about an email, delete it.
Food and water
Most Americans never think twice about having enough water or food each day. But if water treatment or delivery systems aren’t working, or if store shelves are bare, you will start thinking about it very quickly. You should have enough food and water to last at least 72 hours but if you have the room, a week or longer is better. Estimate one gallon of water per person, per day. Don’t forget to include pets.
Plastic one gallon bottles from the grocery store are convenient but take up a lot of room. Alternatives would be five gallon jugs or larger food grade container that you can get from online suppliers. Keep in mind that store bought water actually has an expiration date before bacterial growth can be expected. However, expired water can be purified by boiling, distilling, or using bleach.
Emergency food supplies are all about calories. High calorie dried carbohydrates are your best bet for long term storage. If you already eat pasta, beans, rice or dried corn products, you can just stock up on extra each time you shop or buy in bulk from places like Costco. Fats are very high in calories but go rancid quickly so buying large amounts usually ends up being wasteful.
Food and bottled water expire. Try to keep a record of what you have in your emergency supply and when you bought it. Rotate your supply by using some of it as it approaches expiration. When you do, make sure to buy more to replace it.
For more information on food and water preparation check out these pages from the Red Cross and the Colorado State University.
People just don’t use cash much anymore. However, in the event of a power outage, a compromised network, or a business you are buying from being offline, you might not be able to use a credit card or online payment method.
Have cash on hand. You will have to determine the amount that you might need in the event you cannot use your credit card. Think about how much you spend each month on things that you buy in person. This would include but not be limited to groceries, fuel, and services.
Few businesses still have the ability to manually run a credit card. Many businesses today are not accepting cash for payment even when systems are working well. However, if that is the only way people can pay, they will likely make exceptions.
If cellular service goes down, a lot of people are going to feel lost and alone. You can hope there will be television or radio programs available to give you news of what is going on. But in the event of all local communications being down, a short-wave radio is a great resource. You can get information from broadcasters even when they are far away.
Two-way radios or walkie-talkies are great for families to keep in contact with each other within one to five miles depending on terrain.
Citizen Band (CB) radios are good for two way communications over relatively short distances up to around 20 miles. You can communicate with others in your community and with anyone passing through who might bring information from other places.
Power and Fuel
The US electrical grid is notoriously fragile. It would be a prime target for an enemy state to attack. Our cyber-adversaries have likely been collecting vulnerabilities against it for years. If a massive enough attack was launched successfully, it could have devastating effects on our economy and society.
The oil and gas industry is also susceptible to disruption. The Colonial Pipeline hack of 2021 was simply a ransomware attack. The attackers were not trying to shut down the pipeline or wreak havoc on the public. They just wanted money and were holding encrypted files for ransom.
It was the company itself that made the decision to shut down operations to try and contain the ransomware and keep other parts of the network from becoming compromised. But if a non-malicious attack can so disrupt the economy and lives of everyday citizens, how much more damage could an intentional malware attack do?
Having alternative power sources like generators, batteries and solar panels is a smart move in case of power grid failure or a disruption to other fuel sources. You don’t have to have every alternative power source out there but something is better than nothing when you find yourself suddenly without the ability to use the devices you have come to rely on.
There are pros and cons of having a generator and you have to know how to operate one safely before use. Besides safety issue like carbon monoxide concerns, they are also expensive and sometimes loud. You might not want to announce to your neighbors that you have one or it could end up missing one morning. You also have to make sure to keep a supply of fuel handy which can be burdensome.
Keep your car fuel tanks filled at all times. A car engine actually has its own generator (called an alternator) in it and you can charge things with interior USB ports or get a power inverter to be able to plug in small A/C appliances.
Try not to let your vehicle get below half a tank before hitting the gas station. If you normally wait until the low fuel warning comes on in your car before making the trip to the gas station, change your habits.
Solar panels are easy to obtain (before an emergency) and easy to use. You can get a range of solar panel kits from small ones that can charge and run USB devices to large ones that can run appliances.
Make sure you have enough batteries to power the devices you own. Radios, lights, smoke alarms and clocks are just a few of the items you might have. Take a few minutes and create an inventory of all the battery operated items in your house along with what type of and how many batteries they take. Then you can buy a bulk pack that has enough to replace them all.
Alkaline batteries are a great choice for emergency use because they typically have a longer shelf life. Rechargeable batteries can also be a good choice as long as you have a method to recharge them without home electricity.
You should additionally consider having a supply of cooking and outdoor heating fuels like gas for grills, charcoal and wood. The more options you have, the more comfortable you will be.
As with food you want to rotate your consumable energy sources to keep them fresh. Some fuels can be preserved for an extended time with stabilizers and rechargeable batteries can obviously be recharged. A better solution is just to try to use and replace a portion of your stock throughout the year.
Most of us never really think about light. When we want it, we flip a switch. But if you find yourself without electricity, you will want options for being able to see when night comes.
Battery powered lights like flashlights and lanterns are a great first choice since they are cheap and easy to operate. Liquid fuel lanterns are a great option for outdoor lighting.
Keeping emergency candles on hand diversifies your lighting options. They typically burn longer than normal wax candles and don’t emit as much soot. Don’t forget to have a supply of matches or lighters on hand.
Health and First Aid
Be prepared to handle first aid and medical situations. Even in normal times, emergency rooms and doctor’s offices are busy. It will be much worse during an emergency. Being able to take care of yourself is a huge benefit.
Every household should have a complete first aid kit. How big it is and what’s included depends on how much you want to spend, how long you want the supplies to last, and how skilled you are in using them.
It’s a good idea to have several kits. One can be kept in the home while another can go in your vehicle. You might buy another one to open and use right now so you feel comfortable using them in an emergency.
Keep your preparation plans to yourself. People get a little crazy when their perceived sense of order breaks down, even for a short period of time. That’s why you see stores running out of bottled water, food and fuel after they find out a natural or manmade disaster is imminent.
Rioting and looting is not uncommon even for people in a modern civil society. If others in your community know you have prepared for events like this you could become a target.
Even if you don’t announce your preparations, it is possible that others will come looking for supplies if major systems like electricity and water are down for extended periods or if there is a major disruption to the supply chain. For this reason, you want to make sure your home is as secure as possible.
High quality door locks and reinforced door jambs are great security upgrades for your home even in good times. A majority of home invasions happen during the day. Even if you are home during the day, don’t make it easy for people to get in. Keep your doors locked day and night.
There will be a lot of people who neglected to prepare even a little bit and they will be desperately trying to scramble to get what they need. Because of this, you might consider storing extra supplies that you can give to those in need around you.
Most Americans don’t want to bother with this kind of preparation. They are used to having plenty of goods and services available at a moment’s notice. Admittedly, it can be difficult to think ahead and prepare for negative events. We want to believe that nothing bad can happen to us. But it not only can happen, it is getting more and more likely that it will happen at some point. Society impacting cyber-attacks could occur in the near future, or possibly not at all, but if they happen and you are not prepared, you will regret it.
We should hope and pray that cyber-warfare doesn’t erupt in the United States or anywhere else in the world. But wisdom dictates that we prepare ourselves for our best possible response.