Cyber Warfare and the Increased Need for Protection

21 09 2011

The stereotype that only small groups or individuals with limited resources can be threats to information security is no longer a valid norm.  Now such threats have gone mainstream and even governments have become more actively involved as defenders and attackers. We may not realize it but we are currently observing the dawn of what can arguably be the next generation of combat, cyber warfare.  This form of assault has become a serious threat that only recently caused our own government to invest seriously in the technology to defend itself.1 Recent reports indicate that instances of system security exploitation have been on the rise, without any sign it will decrease in the near future.2

Threats to information security are originating more frequently from larger entities that have more resources at their disposal. One such example is the recent allegation from Google back in June that hackers from China infiltrated email accounts of senior U.S. officials and hundreds of other individuals in and outside of the United States. A similar attack occurred back in 2010 and Google believes in both instances that the Chinese government was responsible.3  The Chinese have denied all accusations despite evidence to the contrary. Though this particular instance was not malicious in nature it demonstrates that governments are participating in cyber attacks in order to enhance their own agenda.

A great example of an effective cyber war attack in action occurred back in July of 2010, when a computer worm called Stuxnet was discovered by the public.  It was the first exposed malware that infiltrators and destabilizes industrial schematics among other advanced capabilities.  The worm program is most famous for having targeted and impaired Iranian uranium enrichment facilities, basically setting Iran’s nuclear research back by about ten years.  No one has claimed responsibility but many have speculated that because the software was extremely sophisticated it could have only been designed “with nation-state support.”4  Evidence has indicated that the attack was a joint effort accomplished by Israel and the United States.  This is one instance of cyber warfare; many more attacks of this magnitude probably occur but are kept secret for one reason or another.

The use of the Stuxnet program also demonstrates how cyber attacks can be applied with the intention of maintaining peace rather than imposing damage (Iran was planning to use enriched uranium technology to create nuclear weapons among other things).  However, there have been rumors that parts of the code which belong to the worm design are now in the hands of those who could use it to strike at the US and Europe.  Despite the apparent ability to implement  stealth assaults on its enemies, it has been speculated that the US, Europe, and other countries lack the infrastructure protection necessary to stop a Stuxnet type assault.  While there are safety measures in place, they are often outdated.  Ralph Langner, one of the first analysts of the Stuxnet program was interviewed this week by the Washington Post and he stated, that despite almost a decade of cyber security and warfare knowledge, the US and others have not adopted any significant protocols for protecting against cyber terrorism.5   Mr. Lagner and many like him believe that only a serious attack on infrastructure will cause the public to finally repair weaknesses in the system.

On numerous occasions it has been reported to the public that the United States has been lacking in its efforts to improve its cyber security capabilities.  Only a year ago former NSA director Mike McConnell stated to the Washington Post that, “The United States is fighting a cyber-war today, and we are losing.”6  The last few years have seen only minor improvements that focus more on military security rather than civilian protection.  As the country waits for the proper legislature to be passed that will allow for increased initiative to improve information security, reports are beginning to show that future attacks have the potential of being more destructive. The current head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, warned at a conference this week that the cyber war is diverging from current tactics of theft and system sabotage to harmful attacks “that (could) cause widespread power outages and even physical destruction of machinery”7 There are instances of this type of occurrence in other countries, like in Russia during 2009 while an offline dam turbine generator was being repaired, a computer 500-miles away re-started it, sending the turbine into the air before it exploded.

The motive behind using software as an assault weapon is that it is inexpensive to implement and most targets are unable to retaliate against the attackers.  As of now the cyber war will continue indefinitely until progress is made in the field of Information Security that effectively prevents and defends against such attacks.  As we can see from the examples above that it is difficult to defend against cyber warfare, especially since, “there is no coherent picture of who is targeting what and which systems and services are potentially vulnerable to cyber attack.”8 While there are instances that show governments, like Israel and the US, actively participating in the cyber war to accomplish constructive outcomes, there is plenty more that could be done.  In the meantime, entities with the right resources continue to wage the cyber war in order to further their agenda, more often for nefarious purposes rather than for good.

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[1] Gerry Smith, “Former Government Officials Stand To Profit From Cybersecurity Boom,” (9/15/2011) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/15/former-government-officials-cybersecurity-boom_n_958790.html.

2 Kuala Lumpur, “Cybersecurity Incidents Continue to Increase,” (9/20/2011) http://www.thesundaily.my/news/150756.

3 Amir Efrati, “Google Discloses China-Based ‘Hijacking’ of Gmail Accounts,” (6/2/2010) http://tinyurl.com/ChinaGoogleWSJ.

4 Chloe Albanesius, “Report: Stuxnet Worm Attacks Iran, Who Is Behind It?,” (9/27/2010) http://www.pcmag.com/article/print/254978.

5 Jason Ukman, “After Stuxnet, Waiting on Pandora’s Box,” (9/20/2011) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/checkpoint-washington/post/after-stuxnet-waiting-on-pandoras-box/2011/09/20/gIQAOkw0hK_blog.html.

6 (Smith, “Former Government Officials Stand To Profit From Cybersecurity Boom”)

7 Warwick Ashford, “Cyber Attacks Are Becoming Lethal,” (9/20/2011) http://www.computerweekly.com/Articles/2011/09/15/247897/Cyber-attacks-are-becoming-lethal-warns-US-cyber-commander.htm.

8 (Ashford, “Cyber Attacks Are Becoming Lethal”)

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One response

23 10 2011
Jason Martin (@jasonmar24)

the terrorist threat to American infrastructure is an import issue. The Huffington Post just posted an article about these risks and even mentions Stuxnet in it report on the future of cyber security. read the article about Weaknesses In Power Systems Sparking Fear of Hack Sabotage here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/23/power-systems-hack_n_1027132.html

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