Special Report: America’s Growing Threat From Cyber Warfare

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) --  The memories of those days after the April 27th 2011 tornadoes are still fresh in most of our minds. And while Huntsville did not take a direct hit from a tornado, the city was paralyzed for days due to a lack of electricity.

While we didn't realize it at the time, this is what a cyber attack on our electric power grid would look like.  A city with technology at its core -- at a standstill.

"I think the power aspect, the power grid, is probably one of the ones that causes the most concern," says Sara Graves.

Graves is the Director of the Information Technology Center at UAH.  She says outside entities, mainly China and Russia, are already living inside our power grid. She says, for the most part, they are not trying to do us direct harm, but are probing, looking for vulnerabilities and technology they can steal.

But she says the clock is ticking and it's just a matter of time before someone, likely a terrorist group, will get the power to knock ours out.

"Many people that are sort of the cyber hackers are doing it because they want to just see if they can," Graves says.  "There are some others that have criminal intent -- terrorism intent.  So, the U.S. is approaching this in both a defensive posture and will also be looking at offense in terms of developing tools that try to help us both personally as well as for institutions."

In 2009, the Department of Defense created the U.S. Cyber Command. Cyber Command is in charge of monitoring attacks and trying to defend against them. But General Keith Alexander, the head of Cyber Command, recently told congress that the Pentagon is now developing "offensive" teams to go after hackers and cyber spies.

"To act quickly, we must have clear lanes of responsibility and rules of engagement," he told Congress. "We all recognize the private sector plays a key role in this area. "

Cyber legal expert Steve Chabinsky recently told CBS News that certain corporations do have the capability to attack the hackers. But most are reluctant to respond without clear cut legal protections.

"You never want the private sector to operate in a way that it has to worry about liability," he says. "You don't want everyone running amok."

Events like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the September 11th attacks shook the foundations of our country. And many cyber experts believe the next September 11th type attack won't involve airplanes and tall buildings, but a cyber attack that will be felt in every state and every community in America.

"Some people say oh wow, you are over stating the issue," Sara Graves says.  "I don't think so. I think that we all have to at least think about what might be occurring."

To prepare for the possibility of a large cyber attack on the U.S., Pentagon war planners recently said that the President should have the capability of using nuclear weapons to stop an ongoing and prolonged attack on the country.