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The Potential for Cyber Warfare
Cyber attacks and cyber warfare have been in the news a lot recently. Following are some comments from Defense News the past month, as reported by William Matthews.
“A sophisticated cyber attack could be a spectacular thing: Picture flaming electric generators, derailed trains, crashed aircraft, exploding gas pipelines, burning power lines, weapons that no longer work and troops stumbling into ambushes.
“ ‘Welcome to warfare in the 21st century,’ says Richard Clarke.
“Clarke, who served as President George W. Bush’s special adviser for cyber security believes the United States is a sitting duck for increasingly sophisticated cyber assaults.”
The U.S. military is responsible, as things now stand, mainly to defend military networks. A U.S. Cyber Command is being established, but it “will not be responsible for the security of civilian computer networks outside the Department of Defense,” said Timothy Madden, spokesman for the Joint Task Force – Global Network Operations.
It’s the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that is responsible for federal civilian networks, and the private sector is responsible for protecting itself, according to Madden. That’s what worries Richard Clarke. DHS “has neither a plan nor the capability” to defend very much of the U.S. cyber infrastructure.
Robert Brammer, chief technology officer for Northrop Grumman Information Systems, said cyber espionage tops his list of concerns. “In a military sense, it could be operational information, battle plans” or technical details on how weapons work, he adds.
“In a cyber attack last July, North Korea is believed to have broken into South Korean computers and acquired copies of plans spelling out how the United States and South Korea would respond if the North attacked the South, said Tom Conway, director of federal business development at the cyber defense company McAfee.
“For North Korea, ‘it’s a tremendous benefit to know that in advance.
“In 2007 and 2008, network intruders, apparently from China, broke into defense contractor computer systems and retrieved an enormous cache of information on the design and the electronic systems of the Joint Strike Fighter, the United States’ newest stealth warplane.”
If you saw Sunday’s “60 Minutes,” you also now know that China has obtained all of the United States’ nuclear secrets, either through the Net or by more traditional means. The U.S. military operates 15,000 cyber networks and 7 million computers, and they are under attack “thousands of times a day.”
“McAfee warns that the world may be entering a ‘cyber cold war’ in which nations ‘are competing in a silent arms race to build cyber weapons.’ Unlike the Cold War fought by the United States and the Soviet Union, the cyber cold war ‘may be more of a free-for-all,’ the security company reports.”
The line between cyber crime and cyber war is also increasingly blurred. For example in 2008, as Russian troops were invading Georgia, “Russian civilians launched cyber attacks on Georgian government, media and financial Web sites. There is evidence that the civilians were helped by Russian organized crime, McAfee reports.”
The FBI warns of “cybergeddon,” a cyber attack that would paralyze U.S. financial systems and cripple the U.S. economy. As William Matthews reports:
“A terrorist-launched ‘virtual 9/11’ could inflict damage on the scale wrought by the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Shawn Henry, assistant director of the FBI’s cyber division said during a cyber security conference last year.
“Only nuclear war and weapons of mass destruction are considered more serious, Henry said.”
Back to China specifically, Kevin Coleman, a cyber management consultant, told Defense News’ Matthews that compared with Russia, which is highly visible in its attacks, such as on Georgia and Estonia, China is secretive and subtle. “And much more dangerous.” Aside from going after our military secrets, successfully, Chinese computer code has been found in the systems of U.S. oil and gas distributors, telecommunications companies and financial services industries.
“China’s military focuses on cyber warfare capabilities on several levels, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Elements of the People’s Liberation Army train for full-spectrum computer network warfare. Meanwhile, dozens of ‘cyber militia units’ manned by corporate and university computer experts prepare for war, but in peacetime probe foreign computer systems and compile databases of intelligence on the networks of potential adversaries.
“ ‘Patriotic hackers’ make up a third layer in China’s cyber force, the commission reported last November. These are private groups of hackers anxious to test their skills, mainly against the United States.”
James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine spent years in China and in the March 2010 issue, he writes that he is not concerned about growing Chinese conventional power, but is on the prospects of “cyber war.”
After talking to a number of experts, Fallows “learned several unsettling things I hadn’t known before.”
“First, nearly everyone in the business believes that we are living in, yes, a pre-9/11 era when it comes to the security and resilience of electronic information systems. Something very big – bigger than the Google-China case – is likely to go wrong, they said, and once it does, everyone will ask how we could have been so complacent for so long…
“The consensus (of experts that Fallows interviewed) was that only a large-scale public breakdown would attract political attention to the problem, and that such a breakdown would occur. ‘Cyber crime is not conducted by some 15-year-old kids experimenting with viruses,’ Eugene Spafford, a computer scientist at Purdue, who is one of the world’s leading cyber security figures, told me later.
“ ‘It is well-funded and pursued by mature individuals and groups of professionals with deep financial and technical resources, often with local government (or other countries’) toleration if not support. It is already responsible for billions of dollars a year in losses, and it is growing and becoming more capable. We have largely ignored it, and building our military capabilities is not responding to that threat.’”
At least Fallows’ research shows that terror networks don’t seem to be a major concern on the cyber warfare front. But it’s not just Russia and China to be concerned with, but France and Israel are two others that are known to be aggressive in seeking economic gain, with Israel also always looking for a political edge. Brazil has evidently become a new player as well.
Back to China, it’s their scale that is so disconcerting. “Hackers in Russia or Israel might be more skillful one by one, but with its huge population China simply has more of them. The French might be more aggressive in searching for corporate secrets, but their military need not simultaneously consider how to stop the Seventh Fleet. According to Mike McConnell (former head of the NSA), everything about China’s military planning changed after its leaders saw the results of U.S. precision weapons in the first Gulf War. ‘They were shocked,’ he told me. ‘They had no idea warfare had progressed to that point, and they went on a crash course to take away our advantage.’” This meant going after “our soft underbelly, our military’s dependence on networking,” as McConnell put it.
“Ed Giorgio, formerly of the NSA, has prepared charts showing the points of ‘asymmetric advantage’ China might have over the long run in such competition. Point nine on his 12-point chart: ‘They know us much better than we know them (virtually every one of their combatants reads English and virtually none of ours read Mandarin. This, in itself, will surely precipitate a massive intelligence failure).’”
But as another expert put it, still, “The primary priority (for China) is domestic control and regime survival.”
James Fallows writes that McConnell argues “that we now suffer from a conspiracy of secrecy about the scale of cyber risks. No credit-card company wants to admit how often or how easily it is cheated. No bank or investment house wants to admit how close it has come to being electronically robbed. As a result, the changes in law, regulation, concept, or habit that could make online life safer don’t get discussed. Sooner or later, the cyber equivalent of 9/11 will occur – and, if the real 9/11 is a model, we will understandably, but destructively, overreact.”