State-Sponsored Cybercrime: From Exploitation to Disruption to Destruction

Vol. 10 No. 2


Kimberly Peretti is a partner in the Washington, DC, office of Alston & Bird LLP, where she is part of the Litigation and Trial Practice team and coleads the Security Incident Management and Response Group. In additional, she has served as Co-Chair of the E-Privacy Law Committee of the ABA Section of Science & Technology Law. Jared Slade is a senior associate in the Dallas, TX, office of Alston & Bird LLP and also part of the Litigation and Trial Practice team. Kim can be reached at Kimberly., and Jared can be reached at Jared.

The lights go out. Connectivity is lost. Communications die. Darkness descends. Candles flicker in the distance. Groups of people huddle. Those with charged devices record the chaos. Shaky handcams capture snippets of confused conversations, as well as the portraits of panicked children and uncertain adults. Uniformed military sweep through cities, trying to maintain the peace. Word spreads: America has suffered from a catastrophic cyberattack. Eventually, conflicts erupt from the pressure of the continued blackout. Fights ensue, and mobs cruise streets and ransack stores for basic supplies. And so ends the trailer for National Geographic’s American Blackout—a fictionalized account of a 10-day postcyberattack power outage.

Although this is fiction, the cyberthreat is certainly real and growing—especially in the space of state-sponsored cybercrime. Verizon’s 2013 Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR) estimated that nearly 20 percent of the more than 47,000 analyzed security incidents were attributed to state-affiliated actors. Indeed, American companies have seen nearly a decade of nation-state attacks that have slowly and stealthily exploited systems and networks, stealing everything from the CEO’s email, to source code, to blueprints, to key research and development plans.

However, the nature of the attacks is changing. Banks are acutely aware of state-sponsored attacks that purport to disrupt—not exploit—systems by rendering consumer-facing websites unavailable to legitimate users. And nation-states have demonstrated the capability to destroy systems, as evidenced by a lethal worm recently unleashed on a state-owned oil company. Indeed, energy sector companies now know they may be the first targets of such destructive attacks.

Although destructive attacks have not yet been pervasive, their very existence leaves companies (especially those in the direct line of fire) grappling cyberrisk assessment and effective preparation, given what could happen in a quickly evolving cyberthreat landscape.

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