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RSA: Act now on cyberwar, security experts caution

Jaikumar Vijayan | Feb. 17, 2011
Waiting for a catastrophic event to happen is misguided, they say

FRAMINGHAM 17 FEBRUARY 2011 - SAN FRANCISCO -- The time to address cyberwar is now, several experts at the RSA Security Conference held here this week said.

Disagreements may persist on what constitutes an overt act of cyberwar or how to recognize such an act, they acknowledged. And questions also remain on whether cyberwar" is an accurate term to describe deliberate attacks against critical infrastructure targets by enemies that may or may not be state-sponsored.

Even so, the time has arrived for the U.S. to develop a strategic plan for dealing with threats against critical infrastructure and those targeting U.S. economic interests, they said.

"I don't think we are in a cyberwar right now," said Michael Chertoff, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and an independent consultant. "But we would be foolish not to recognize the potential," he noted during a keynote panel discussion at the trade show. "There is no doubt that cyber warfare is going to be within the domain of conflict" very shortly.

Chertoff and other panelists, including former National Security Agency Director Mike McConnell and security guru Bruce Schneier, said that while there has been a lot of hype surrounding the issue, the core concerns remain unchanged.

" 'Cyberwar' is a sexier term than a 'cyberattack,' " so a lot of people have been throwing the word around, Schneier said.

"It's being talked about because that's what sells," he added. "There's a lot of push for budget and power [within organizations], and overstating the threat is a good way to get people scared."

But the fact is that more "warlike tactics," including politically motivated hacking and attacks against critical infrastructure, are increasingly taking place, Schneier said. "When you are attacked in cyberspace, who defends you?" he asked. "You don't know who is attacking you and why," and this uncertainty can be a problem.

According to McConnell, the real challenge is to define the right legislative framework for dealing with the problem. Attacks against U.S. government and commercial targets leech terabytes' worth of intellectual property out of the country on a regular basis, he said.

Such espionage is every bit as insidious as any threat, McConnell noted. "The point I want to highlight is, let's not sell short the idea of electronic espionage," he said. "We as a nation need to be thinking about it."

The very nature of the Internet makes it hard to impose the same sort of rules that exist in the physical realm, the panelists said. Attacks on the Internet can be carried out with the same level of efficacy by state-sponsored actors and criminal groups. Unlike in the physical realm, the same attack tools are available and can be used by anyone.


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