Squirrels Dubbed Major Security Threat

John Lister's picture

Squirrels pose more of a threat to infrastructure than cyber terrorists - or, at least that's what one researcher's project implies.

Cris Thomas says he found nearly five million people have been affected by power cuts caused by animals since 2013. According to Thomas, that's vastly more damaging than deliberate human actions to disrupt power and communications networks.

The surprising claim came at a security conference in Washington and attracted attention given many speeches at such events concentrate on the actions of human hackers, terrorists and state governments in disrupting networks.

Snakes and Raccoons also Destructive

Thomas's research project, dubbed Cyber Squirrel 1, involves tracking reports of animal-related power cuts using search engines, online news sites and social media sources. He found more than 1,700 cases, of which 879 were the work of squirrels, usually chewing through cables. Other offenders included birds with 434 cases, snakes on 83 and raccoons on 72. Thomas says the true figure is likely much higher as he only looked for reports written in English.

In most cases, the animals caused the power cuts by damaging cables. One of the more unusual exceptions was an incident when jellyfish clogged up pipes carrying water into the turbines of a nuclear power plant, leading to the entire facility having to be shut down until the problem was fixed. (Source: theguardian.com)

Figures Designed to Make Wider Point

The report isn't meant to be a serious condemnation of the animals, but rather Thomas's way of arguing that the threat posed by humans is overhyped and that governments don't necessarily need to put as many resources into combating cyber terrorism.

One security expert quoted by the BBC - ironically an employee of a company called PandaLabs - said it wasn't as simple as prioritizing one form of attack over another. Luis Corrons argued that even if human cyber attacks may be far fewer in number, they are still significant because they are deliberate. There's also more potential for such attacks to be coordinated and targeted. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

What's Your Opinion?

Is the threat of cyber terrorism overblown? Is it fair to compare the physical damage caused by animals with the remote hacking humans could carry out? How should government and infrastructure agencies distribute their resources when it comes to cyber security?

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Dennis Faas's picture

While the author has a point, I don't think it's fair to compare a squirrel chewing through a power cable being equivalent to a Russian hacker attempting to disrupt power to millions of home owners (for example).

Also, I don't believe the threat of cyber terrorism is overblown; it is real and I have seen bots (automated programs) - mostly all from China - attempting to hack my server on a daily basis. If you let your guard down for a minute, someone else will find a way to exploit it. That is what exploits and especially "0 day" threats are all about.

blueboxer2's picture

One word: Stuxnet.

No one knows (or is admitting to) the "5 Ws" details of this attack, but the Iranians seem pretty impressed with the results. And that was one small attack (relatively speaking) on one operation in one place.

It was obviously calculated and deliberate - and if someone could do it once, they or someone else could do the same thing or equivalent again. It's an open-ended threat of major devastation and damage anywhere and anytime.

And however the weird and wacky a chain of circumstances occurs, it is not going to do by animal action what humans have shown can easily become routine and worse.

Doccus's picture

Actually, I think it ought to be, at least as far as the damage that can be done locally. And I'm referring , not to squirrels or snakes etc, but RATS. If they get into a power room, which they will if it's sub zero outside, they will chew through every cable they can find. Their teeth are continuously growing, causing them pain if they don't trim them.
In my area there has been a bad rodent problem over the last 3 or 4 years, and even the pest control people are having a hard time dealing with them..Having limited mobility , in my case, really hasn't helped me deal with them either. as a result, I've been dealing with their chewing through my electrical cables, my plumbing, and even trashbins (I've had to switch from a plastic bin to a metal one!) I have absolutely no doubt that if they yook up residence in an old missile silo they could exert horrific damage :-(.
Why rats were omitted from the report completely flummoxes me, really.. unless they were trying to push the "cute little fuzzy animal" button...

durbandon's picture

We allowed a cute field mouse into our home. It chewed up several electrical wires. After paying to have the washing machine repaired we resorted to ratex and killed the intruder.