Security Experts:

Do Cyber Attacks Have A Tipping Point Where Catastrophic Effects Are Imminent?

The term “Tipping Point” is controversial because it has been so widely misused and loosely applied; two abuses that I often see in the cyber security marketplace. However, there are examples where a tipping point has been found to exist through more rigorously applied studies.

One study showed the point where hospitals begin to fail resulting in the deaths of critically ill patients: “What our research revealed is that there is, in fact, a tipping point which was triggered strongly at midnight occupancy levels of around 92 per cent in our data. When the tipping point was exceeded, patients began dying in significant numbers.”

The risk of a fire turning into a firestorm due to the density of trees in a forest occurs at 59% density: “The risk of catastrophic fire does not increase in a linear relationship with the density of the forest. Instead there is a tipping point at about 59% density.”

My interest with tipping points have to do with critical infrastructure such as the power grid or transportation routes. A lot of papers have been written about cascading failures such as [1] and [2], however what would happen if a small terrorist group with moderate knowledge of industrial control systems wanted to create sustained or repeated outages? Think of the different regional grids in the U.S. as songs on an adversary’s playlist, and he just hit “Shuffle”. What would be the tipping point before social order in the U.S. would collapse?

I don’t know if there’s a good answer to that question, but I think it’s one that needs exploring. Therefore, I’ve organized a panel to address the issue from different angles at Suits and Spooks New York. Joining me will be Joe Weiss, an internationally known ICS expert and Dr. John Mallory of MIT.

If you’d like to hear this discussion and add your perspective, please register to join us at Suits and Spooks New York on June 20-21, 2014. This will be just one of many great panels and speakers. Suits and Spooks New York will mark the first SecurityWeek-branded two day event. Hope to see you there.


[1] Saleh Soltan, Dorian Mazauric, Gil Zussman: Cascading Failures in Power Grids – Analysis and Algorithms

[2] Paulo Shakarian, Hansheng Lei, Roy Lindelauf: Power Grid Defense Against Malicious Cascading Failure.

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Jeffrey Carr is founder and CEO of Taia Global and author of “Inside Cyber Warfare: Mapping the Cyber Underworld” (O’Reilly Media 2009 and 2011) and the founder of the Suits and Spooks event series. Jeffrey has had the privilege of speaking at the US Army War College, Air Force Institute of Technology, Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Study Group, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA’s Open Source Center and at over 100 conferences and seminars and regularly consults on security matters for multinational corporations.