A British think tank is raising the alarm in a new report that warns nuclear weapons may face a "relatively high" risk of cyberattacks as technology becomes more advanced and hackers grow more sophisticated.
Leaving nuclear weapons systems vulnerable to cyber criminals could have dangerous consequences, including them possibly setting off the weapon during a time of crisis through data manipulation.
“There are a number of vulnerabilities and pathways through which a malicious actor may infiltrate a nuclear weapons system without a state’s knowledge," the research released Thursday by British think tank Chatham House states.
“At times of heightened tension, cyberattacks on nuclear weapons systems could cause an escalation, which results in their use," it continued. "Inadvertent nuclear launches could stem from an unwitting reliance on false information and data. Moreover, a system, that is compromised cannot be trusted in decision-making.”
The report notes that a system infiltrated by a malicious actor could affect a nuclear weapons system's ability to "launch a weapon, prevent an inadvertent launch, maintain command and control of all military systems, transmit information and other communications, [and] the maintenance and reliability of such systems."
A range of issues could compromise systems that “were first developed at a time when computer capabilities were in their infancy and little consideration was given to potential malicious cyber vulnerabilities,” according to the report.
The report identified human errors, design flaws, system failures and other vulnerabilities within the supply chain as potential entry points for malicious actors to breach the nuclear weapons systems and wreak havoc through manipulating its data and jamming its network, among other harmful cyber methods.
While the think tank does not state that these are new risks, it makes the case that “new technology has exacerbated these risks.”
“Cyber risks in nuclear weapons systems have thus far received scant attention from the nuclear weapons policy community,” it added.
The think tank outlines a few solutions to defend the systems from outside actors prying into these powerful weapons systems, including rigorously testing a system’s ability to properly assess risks.
“Possible cyber resilience measures include taking a holistic approach in creating trustworthy systems based on rigorous risk assessments. These should incorporate an analysis of a combination of threats, vulnerabilities and consequences.”