Security expert: U.S. would lose cyber war

The U.S. government will have to take a more active role in regulating cyber security, a former intelligence official says

The U.S. government, if confronted in a cyber war today, would not come out on top, a former U.S. director of national intelligence said Tuesday. "If the nation went to war today, in a cyber war, we would lose," Mike McConnell told a U.S. Senate committee. "We're the most vulnerable. We're the most connected. We have the most to lose."

McConnell, director of national intelligence from 2007 to 2009, predicted that the U.S. government would eventually get heavily involved in protecting cyber security and in regulating private approaches to cyber security. Testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, McConnell also predicted that the U.S. would make little improvements in its cyber security before a "catastrophic" attack will cause the government to get involved.

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"We will not mitigate this risk," said McConnell, now executive vice president for the national security business at Booz Allen Hamilton. "We will talk about it, we will wave our hands, we'll have a bill, but we will not mitigate this risk."

After a major attack, the government will step in to secure the Internet, McConnell predicted. "We're going to morph the Internet from something that's referred to generally as dot-com to something that we call dot-secure," he said. "When [online] transactions move billions of dollars, or when transactions route trains up and down the East Coast or control electric power ... the basic attributes of security must be endorsed."

Government intervention is needed, added James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank. Private-sector fixes to the nation's cyber security problems haven't been effective, he said.

The Internet was designed as a global commons that polices itself, but that model has failed, Lewis added. "Instead, we've got the Wild West," he said. "Many will say we should let the market fix cyber security. I'm familiar with this one, because I, myself, wrote it in 1996, and I'm still waiting. Government needs to give the market a kick."

Early last year, Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) introduced a bill that would create new cyber security regulations for private companies designated as critical infrastructure. The senators have rewritten the Cyber Security Act several times after complaints from the private sector, but the bill would also require a national licensing and certification program for cyber security professionals. Under the bill, it would be illegal to provide some cyber security services without being licensed and certified.

Some versions of the bill would have also allowed the U.S. president to order that parts of the Internet under attack be shut down. Lewis praised the bill, saying it provides a "broad rethinking" of the nation's approach to cyber security.

Rockefeller, the committee chairman, said cyber attacks are happening too often and are "sucking the blood" out of the U.S. economy. The U.S. government needs "strong top-level coordination" to protect cyber security, he said. "Too much is at stake for us to pretend that today's outdated cyber security policies are up to the task of protecting our nation and economic infrastructure," he said. "We have heard the reassurances and seen the best efforts of many in the private sector working to secure their networks. But it is clear that even the largest, most sophisticated companies are not immune from attack."

While new regulations might help in some areas, U.S. technology users and policymakers need to stop tying more and more systems to the Internet, said Mary Ann Davidson, chief security officer at Oracle. "In the many discussions on what the government can do to fix cyber security ... it is worth noting that no single proposal will save us, and certainly not any time soon," she said. "There is, however, one thing we can do today: Stop making cyber security worse by rushing to use technology in ways we know very well we cannot secure."

Davidson said she worries about when the U.S. electrical system is fully controlled through the Internet and when people working with SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems fully embrace their ability to turn the systems on and off through a smartphone. "We know that people have built personal digital assistants that 'talk SCADA' because 'it's so expensive to send a technician to the plant,'" she said. "It won't be long before we hear 'Move the control rods in and out of the reactor? There's an app for that!' Some day we may have a power plant meltdown when all someone was trying to do is answer the phone," she added.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.