Cyber Insecurity

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In August, Russian troops moved into Georgia. Observers dispute who fired first, but there was a little-noticed dimension to the conflict that will have major repercussions for the future.

Computer hackers attacked Georgian government web sites in the weeks preceding the outbreak of armed conflict. The Russia-Georgia conflict represents the first significant cyber-attacks accompanying armed conflict. Welcome to the 21st century.

Cyberthreats and potential cyberwarfare illustrate the increased vulnerabilities and loss of control in modern societies. Governments have mainly been concerned about hacker attacks on their own bureaucracy's information technology infrastructure, but there are social vulnerabilities well beyond government computers.

In an open letter to the U.S. president in September 2007, U.S. professionals in cyberdefense warned: "The critical infrastructure of the United States, including electrical power, finance, telecommunications, health care, transportation, water, defense and the Internet, is highly vulnerable to cyberattack. Fast and resolute mitigating action is needed to avoid national disaster." In the murky world of the Internet, attackers are difficult to identify.

In today's interconnected society, an unidentified cyberattack on nongovernmental infrastructure might be severely damaging. For example, some experts believe that a nation's electric power grid may be particularly susceptible. The control systems that electric power companies use are thought vulnerable to attack, which could shut down cities and regions for days or weeks. Cyberattacks may also interfere with financial markets and cause immense economic loss by closing down commercial web sites.

Some scenarios, including an "electronic Pearl Harbor," sound alarmist, but they illustrate the diffusion of power from central governments to individuals. In 1941, the powerful Japanese navy used many resources to create damage thousands of kilometers away. Today, an individual hacker using malicious software can cause chaos in faraway places at little cost to himself.

Moreover, the information revolution enables individuals to perpetrate sabotage with unprecedented speed and scope. The so-called "love-bug virus," launched in the Philippines in 2000, is estimated to have cost billions of dollars in damage. Terrorists, too, can exploit new vulnerabilities in cyberspace to engage in asymmetrical warfare.

In 1998, when the United States complained about seven Moscow Internet addresses involved in the theft of Pentagon and NASA secrets, the Russian government replied that phone numbers from which the attacks originated were inoperative. Washington had no way of knowing whether Moscow had been involved.

More recently, in 2007, China's government was accused of sponsoring thousands of hacking incidents against German federal government computers and defense and private sector computer systems in the United States. But it was difficult to prove the source of the attack, and the Pentagon had to shut down some of its computer systems.

In 2007, when Estonia's government moved a World War II statue commemorating Soviet war dead, hackers retaliated with a costly denial-of-service attack that closed down Estonia's access to the Internet. There was no way to prove whether the Russian government, a spontaneous nationalist response, or both aided this transnational attack.

In January, President George W. Bush signed two presidential directives that called for establishing a comprehensive cyber-security plan, and his 2009 budget requested $6 billion to develop a system to protect national cybersecurity. President-elect Barack Obama is likely to follow suit. In his election campaign, Obama called for tough new standards for cybersecurity and physical resilience of critical infrastructure. He also promised to appoint a national cyber-adviser who will report directly to him and be responsible for developing policy and coordinating federal agency efforts.

That job will not be easy because much of the relevant infrastructure is not under direct government control. Just recently, Donald Kerr, the U.S. deputy director of national intelligence, warned that "major losses of information and value for our government programs typically aren't from spies. ... In fact, one of the great concerns I have is that so much of the new capabilities that we're all going to depend on aren't any longer developed in government labs under government contract."

Kerr described what he called "supply-chain attacks," in which hackers not only steal proprietary information but go further and insert erroneous data and programs in communications hardware and software -- "Trojan horses" that can be used to bring down systems. All governments will find themselves exposed to a new type of threat that will be difficult to counter.

Governments can hope to deter cyberattacks just as they deter nuclear or other armed attacks. But deterrence requires a credible threat of response against an attacker. And that becomes much more difficult in a world where governments find it hard to tell where cyberattacks come from -- whether from a hostile state or a group of criminals masking as a foreign government.

While an international legal code that defines cyberattacks more clearly can help, such arms-control solutions are not likely to be sufficient. Nor will defensive measures like constructing electronic firewalls and creating redundancies in sensitive systems.

Given the enormous uncertainties involved, the new cyberdimensions of security must be high on every government's agenda.

Joseph S. Nye is a professor of international relations at Harvard University and author most recently of "The Powers to Lead." © Project Syndicate