US intelligence threat assessment on cyber, energy, infrastructure risks

Friday, February 16, 2018

The U.S. intelligence community has released an unclassified report presenting its assessment of the global context and how threats could affect U.S. actions. The latest Worldwide Threat Assessment finds increasing risk of cyber attacks and threats to U.S. infrastructure, as well as impacts from climate change.

The 28-page report released February 13, 2018, Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, describes a variety of global and regional threats.

While a disclaimer notes that the order of topics addressed does not necessarily imply the relative importance or magnitude of threats covered in the report, the first category of global threat addressed is cyber threats. According to the assessment, "The potential for surprise in the cyber realm will increase in the next year and beyond as billions more digital devices are connected — with relatively little built-in security — and both nation states and malign actors become more emboldened and better equipped in the use of increasingly widespread cyber toolkits. The risk is growing that some adversaries will conduct cyber attacks — such as data deletion or localized and temporary disruptions of critical infrastructure — against the United States in a crisis short of war. "

Illustrating this threat, the report notes that state-sponsored cyber attacks against Ukraine and Saudi Arabia in 2016 and 2017 targeted multiple sectors across critical infrastructure, government, and commercial networks, including disruption of Ukrainian energy-distribution networks. The report projects that in the next year, "Russian intelligence and security services will continue to probe US and allied critical infrastructures."

The report also notes the complex global foreign intelligence threat environment facing the U.S. in 2018. While it identifies penetrating the US national decisionmaking apparatus and intelligence community as primary objectives for numerous foreign intelligence entities, the report notes that "the targeting of national security information and proprietary information from US companies and research institutions involved with defense, energy, finance, dual-use technology, and other areas will remain a persistent threat to US interests."

The report cites U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that 2018 West Texas Intermediate and Brent prices will average $58 and $62 per barrel, respectively, compared to $98 and $109 in 2013. Noting that oil prices have remained low since 2013, the report observes that oil-exporting countries continue to suffer from low prices, and that "their economic woes are likely to continue, with broader negative implications. Subdued economic growth, combined with sharp increases in North American oil and gas production, probably will continue putting downward pressure on global energy prices, harming oil-exporting economies." The report describes impacts of low oil prices on countries including Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf oil exporters, Angola, Nigeria, Russia.

The report also notes the existence and impacts of climate change. It observes, "Challenges from urbanization and migration will persist, while the effects of air pollution, inadequate water, and climate change on human health and livelihood will become more noticeable. Domestic policy responses to such issues will become more difficult — especially for democracies — as publics become less trusting of authoritative information sources."

According to the assessment, "The impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent — and possibly upheaval — through 2018." It notes that the "past 115 years have been the warmest period in the history of modern civilization , and the past few years have been the warmest years on record." It cites extreme weather events in a warmer world as having the potential for greater impacts in the future, as well as increased challenges to government prompted by environmental concerns or water scarcity. The report also notes that nearly half the world's international river basins are exposed to gaps in the agreements governing water supply and dam development, exacerbating this concern.

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