SHTF Implications: DNI Worldwide Threat Assessment


Last month, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released its Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community report (download).  In this report Director of National Intelligence James Clapper outlined global threats to national security.  Here are Forward Observer’s six lessons learned for SHTF preparedness.

1. Your devices are spies.  The Internet of Things (IoT) has been of increasing interest to the U.S. Intelligence Community for some time.  That means that it’s also becoming of increasing value to Russian, Chinese, and other foreign intelligence services.  The IoT is a network of internet-connected devices, such as smart phones, televisions, gaming systems, thermostats, surveillance cameras, etc.  It’s apparent that intelligence agencies are not only gaining access as quickly as these devices are coming to market, but they’re also benefiting from the data being reported.  The concept of persistent surveillance is that it’s always on and always collecting information.  Unlike targeted surveillance, which is a deliberate effort to identify, track or monitor a subject, persistent surveillance is becoming more passive and widespread through the IoT.  We’re on the cusp of significant improvements in the state of persistent surveillance, and it’s increasingly likely that everyone will be targeted through the IoT.


2.  Information integrity matters.  We shouldn’t just be concerned over foreign intelligence services stealing sensitive data.  We should also be concerned about hackers being able to manipulate existing data.  Considering the velocity of information over social media, what could happen if a CNN news article about a police shooting was hacked to include what’s purported to be the police officer’s name or address, but was actually the name or address of a local political adversary?  What if a DMV database was hacked in order to change the physical address of a violent suspect, so law enforcement targeted a different home or location, instead?  Imagine if a foreign intelligence service wanted to stir up trouble domestically, so it quickly spread lots of disinformation about a fake event.  In the case of the last example, that actually happened.

On the morning of 11 September 2014, a Department Homeland Security official received a phone call from a concerned citizen about an explosion at a Columbia Chemical facility in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana.  The caller, who was local to the area, had received a text message saying, “Toxic fume hazard warning in this area until 1:30 PM.  Take Shelter. Check Local Media and”

Twitter was abuzz with tweeted and re-tweeted stories (and pictures, too) of this massive, fake explosion that sent poisonous gasses throughout the area.  A YouTube channel proclaimed the attack to be the work of the Islamic State.  Websites were created to look like legitimate local news crews were reporting the story.  In all, the disinformation campaign involved dozens of accounts and websites, each of which deliberately published false information.  In December 2014, the same Twitter accounts from the Columbia Chemical incident began spreading disinformation about the outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta, including the same types of news and videos.  Now imagine the next powder keg event just looking for an excuse to become overtly violent.  American culture is vulnerable to this type of manipulation, and we should expect events like these to happen again.  (Texas — see this.)

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3.  There are massive vulnerabilities to U.S. critical infrastructure.  Reports of sensitive data breaches are a regular occurrence, and represent the tip of the iceberg.  Cyber security professional have observed foreign adversaries hacking computer systems where passwords have been changed to allow easier access for other nefarious actors, and in at least one instance, source code had been added which made encrypted information more easily broken by U.S. adversaries.  In many cases, breaches of sensitive data go unreported because the attacks go unnoticed.  Beyond that, critical infrastructure is highly vulnerable to physical attacks, in addition to disruption from age and maintenance-related issues.


4.  The DNI forsees “long-term economic, political, and social problems”.  Clapper specifically cites these problems as conditions that allow insurgencies to prosper around the world as insurgents exploit poor governance, and wasn’t explicitly referring to the U.S.  In another section, the report states that “[g]lobal economic growth will probably remain subdued…”  Considering the mounting concerns over the global economy, we can say that at the very least, the global economy is likely to continue to deteriorate, which will exacerbate long-term economic, political and social problems.  Given the globalized economy, America is likely to suffer as well.


5.  U.S. communications systems are becoming increasingly at risk.  As Russian and Chinese space-based capabilities improve, they threaten U.S. advantages in command, control and communications (C3) heavily reliant on satellites.  In a declared war with either nation, U.S. C3 satellites will probably be among top targets in order to degrade operations, especially where force projection into the eastern hemisphere concerned.  In addition to counterspace warfare, the Russians have made significant improvements to their electronic warfare (EW) capabilities.  We’ve seen instances of Russian EW units jamming NATO communications in the Ukraine conflict.  If there’s any lesson here, it’s that we should all get intimately familiar with amateur/ham radio.


6. Cartels and transnational gangs continue to pose threats to regional security.  Drug cartels, gangs and traffickers threaten security across southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.  Not only has drug trafficking probably increased in the past several years, but ODNI expects that trend to continue as the U.S. heroin epidemic flares up.  In addition to drug cartels, transnational organized gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) are posing particular problems.  Overall, increased criminality — sometimes violent — is a result, and especially concerning is public corruption.  Law enforcement officers in the pockets of cartels or drug gangs pose a threat to SHTF security.  The higher the corruption goes, e.g., police chiefs or sheriffs, the more conventional the threat becomes, whereas the lower the corruption goes, e.g., individual officers, the greater the irregular threat.


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