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AI-Fueled Threats: Experts Highlight Growing Concerns over Cyber-Physical Attack

Experts Highlight Growing Concerns over Cyber-Physical Attack
Network security graphic user interface background. Da-kuk | E+ | Getty Images Network security graphic user interface background. Da-kuk | E+ | Getty Images
Experts Highlight Growing Concerns over Cyber-Physical Attack
Network security graphic user interface background. Da-kuk | E+ | Getty Images Network security graphic user interface background. Da-kuk | E+ | Getty Images

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AI-Fueled Threats: Experts Highlight Growing Concerns over Cyber-Physical Attack

The increasing integration of artificial intelligence (AI) in the hands of hackers, whether individual actors or nation-states, has raised concerns among experts about the emergence of “cyber-physical attacks.” Traditionally, cybersecurity incidents have involved freezing systems, ransomware demands, and temporary disruptions. However, with the widespread adoption of generative AI, there are fears that cyber-physical attacks, causing physical harm or damage, may become the next phase of cybercrime.

Last month, the FBI alerted Congress about Chinese hackers infiltrating critical U.S. infrastructure, including water treatment plants, the electrical grid, and transportation systems, with the intent to cause damage. Stuart Madnick, an MIT professor, and co-founder of Cybersecurity at MIT Sloan (CAMS), has studied the intersection of cyber and physical systems. He emphasized that with the proliferation of generative AI, concerns about physical attacks resulting from cyber intrusions have escalated.

Madnick’s team conducted simulations in the lab that resulted in explosions by hacking into computer-controlled motors. Such cyber-physical attacks could cause temperature gauges to malfunction, pressure values to jam, and circuits to be circumvented, leading to more severe consequences than a typical cyberattack that only takes a system offline temporarily.

While the technology powered by AI enables potential havoc on physical systems, three elements—capability, opportunity, and motivation—must align for such attacks to occur. Currently, the primary deterrent is a lack of sufficient motivation, as attacks on physical infrastructure could be considered acts of war.

Tim Chase, CISO at data platform Lacework, expressed concern about the vulnerabilities in the nation’s infrastructure, particularly systems using programmable logic controllers (PLCs). He fears that hackers could leverage generative AI to create code for PLCs, gaining control over industrial systems and causing physical manifestations.

Sivan Tehila, a program director and professor at Yeshiva University, emphasized the growing threat of AI-assisted cyber-physical attacks. While acknowledging the risks, Tehila also highlighted AI’s role in enhancing cyber defenses, detecting threats, and responding effectively.

Although experts vary on the level of threat posed by cyber-physical attacks facilitated by AI, there is consensus that the increasing reliance on decades-old legacy systems in the U.S., combined with AI’s capabilities, may create more opportunities for exploitation and cyber threats.


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