Few events have crystallized U.S. fears over a cyber catacystrophe, or brought on calls for a strategic response, more than the recent attacks against Google and more than 30 other tech firms.
The company's disclosure in January that it was attacked by China-based hackers -- and its subsequent decision to scale back operations there -- have stoked long-standing fears over the ability of cyber adversaries to penetrate commercial and government networks in the U.S.
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If a full-fledged cyber war were to break out, the nation's economy would be hit hard. Banks might not be able function, electricity, water and other utilities could be shut off, air travel would almost certainly be disrupted, and communications would be spotty at best -- in a word, chaos.
Few think that such a war is imminent. But damage has already been done by a slew of cyber attacks that, while well short of cyber war, have still resulted in the theft of terabytes of intellectual property data, trade secrets and classified military and government information. That information is now in the hands of overseas groups, many of which are thought to be state-sponsored.
It's not just data and secrets. cyber thieves have also made off with billions of dollars from U.S companies and banks, and there are growing concerns that cyber attackers are making subtle changes to software source code. That way, they can create permanent windows into a company's operations for future mischief.
An 'existential threat'
Many see the attacks as evidence that the U.S. is already in the midst of an undeclared cyber war, with attacks against government targets estimated to have more than doubled in the past two years. Just last week, a top FBI official called cyber attacks an "existential threat" to the U.S. On Friday, two U.S. senators now pushing cyber security legislation in Congress reiterated those sentiments.
And Mike McConnell the former director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and director of national intelligence during the Bush administration, recently said in a Washington Post column that the U.S is not only fighting such a war, it's also losing the battle.
That sentiment was echoed by U.S. Navy Admiral Robert Willard. who warned Congress about U.S military and government networks being hit by attacks that appeared to originate from China. The attacks are challenging the military's ability to "operate freely in the cyber commons," he said.
Those views are shared by security experts in both the government and the private sector who see the relentless probing and attacks on U.S agencies and commercial interests as a precursor to something more devastating. The concern is prompting action of sorts in Washington. In just the past month, two major cyber security bills have been proposed. One would tie U.S financial aid to a country's willingness to fight cyber crime. The other would strengthen domestic cyber security and require the president to work with private industry in responding to a cyber crisis. That's a forgone conclusion, given how much of the nation's cyber infrastructure is in private hands.
A cyber security ambassador?
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department is rumored to be considering the creation of a cyber security ambassador for the U.N. That's important, since there's no settled definition of cyber war, and various nations are already trying to figure out what a cyber war entails and how it would be declared -- and fought.
The first step to formulating an organized response is to define cyber war correctly, said Robert Rodriguez, a former Secret Service special agent and founder of the Security Innovation Network. Calling what's gone on in recent years a "cyber war" only complicates things, he said.
"War connotes huge conflict at a grand level between nations and societies," Rodriguez said.
It also involves the use of military force to essentially destroy another nation's capabilities and will to resist, according to James Lews, director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The cyber equivalent of such a conflict would involve a nation using cyber means to attain political ends in another country, said Lewis, who led a commission that developed a set of cyber security recommendations for President Obama last year.
"When you look at the number of systems that have been Trojaned or compromised, you could say our cyber battlefield has been prepped and can be used against us," admits Jerry Dixon, former director of the National cyber Security Division at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
"However, the adversary has to decide if the intelligence they're getting from our systems and networks is more valuable than attacking them to take them offline," he said. "If they attack and take them offline, they will lose insight into what we're doing."
Making such distinctions is crucial from a strategic response standpoint. "Pronouncements that we are in a cyber war or face cyber terror conflate problems and make effective response more difficult," Lewis said.
So if the attacks of recent years aren't warfare, what are they?
Spies or criminals?
A lot of what's going on is happening on two levels: cyber espionage and cyber crime on a massive -- and growing -- scale. They aren't new, said Patricia Titus, the former chief information security officer at the Transportation Security Administration who now holds a similar post at Unisys Corp. But the attacks on Google and other companies refocused attention on the scope of the problem, she said.
Many of the recent attacks tended to originate from China, though countries such as Russia and India are also suspect. Specific companies and government organizations are usually targeted through the use of social engineering tricks, advanced reconnaissance and sophisticated malware tools that can quietly penetrate networks and steal data. What's not always clear is whether this kind of economic and military espionage is state-sponsored or carried out by hactivists and opportunists.
Other attacks, especially those from Eastern Europe, aim to steal money from banks, businesses, educational institutions and individuals. Most recently, cyber attacks have targeted small and midsize businesses, some of which have been forced out of business or into bankruptcy.
A nexus of bad guys
Increasingly, there appears to be a nexus between the groups committing cyber theft and those doing cyber espionage, said Amit Yoran, former director of the National cyber Security Division of the DHS and current CEO of NetWitness Corp. Many of the botnets, servers, malware tools and techniques now used in cyber crime are also being used for espionage. "Where traditionally a [state-run] intelligence service would execute their own operations, now they have ties with organized crime," he said.
Those kinds of connections -- loose, fluid and constantly changing -- make fending off cyber attacks difficult. As a result, a successful strategic response means that the intelligence community, the U.S Secret Service, FBI and other law enforcement agencies have to start collaborating more, security analysts say. And more information-sharing between the private and public sectors needs to take place.
The vast majority of the critical infrastructure in the U.S. is owned by the private sector. But most companies have little or no information about the wealth of threat data being collected by intelligence and other government agencies, Titus said. If they're unaware of the threats, they may be vulnerable.
At the international level, moves like the proposal to create a U.N. cyber ambassador who can negotiate cyber security matters and articulate U.S. policy are crucial, Titus said. In fact, she wants the State Department to consider installing cyber attachés at U.S. embassies in key countries such as China, India and Russia. That way, the U.S government could quickly communicate with the appropriate authorities in other countries during a cyber crisis. It also gives U.S firms operating in countries such as India and China -- think Google -- a place to turn to immediately when a crisis flares, she said.
The government also needs to focus on continuous monitoring and situational awareness by creating an early-warning system that could sniff out attacks, said Karen Evans, former de facto federal CIO under the Bush administration. Getting a jump on an attack would allow government agencies to respond in a coordinated fashion, she said.
No national policy
Evans believes the time has come for the government to formalize a national policy for dealing with cyber threats. Such a policy should clearly define the thresholds beyond which cyber attacks will be considered an act of war, establish who's in charge among the different federal agencies that would respond to a cyber crisis, and spell out when they are allowed to use that authority.
Few doubt that the U.S. Department of Defense and the NSA could launch crippling cyber offensives of their own in response to a cyber attack. But a policy framework needs to be in place defining when such an offensive is appropriate, Yoran said. Whether that retaliation means a cyber-counteroffensive or a more conventional military one needs to be figured out as part of U.S. cyber policy before a crisis, Yoran said,
"Just as we would respond to a terrorist attack, there needs to be some sort of a response capability," Titus said.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story, "After Google-China dust-up, cyber war emerges as a threat" was originally published by Computerworld.