On Government Strategies to Mitigate Growing Cyber Threats

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pierluigi Paganini

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(Translated from the original Italian)

In the last decade, we have observed a rise in cyber attacks against military and private business, be they for cyber warfare or cyber espionage, which have demonstrated how dangerous cyber offensives can be.

The U.S.'s leading cyber warrior has estimated that private businesses are losing hundreds of billions of dollars to cyber espionage, and the expense to prevent these attacks is increasing at a rate that makes companies less competitive.

The main problem is how to address these cyber threats with an appropriate strategy and recruit capable experts to the cause.

Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the secretive National Security Agency and head of the Pentagon's Cyber Command, recently declared recently that illicit cyberspace activities essentially amounted to "the greatest transfer of wealth in history."

The general alerted the U.S. Government to this imminent threat to national security in a recent public address in which he said that U.S. companies lose $250 billion to intellectual property theft every year.

Alexander referred to data from Symantec and McAfee reports that show an alarming scenario: $114 billion was lost due cybercrime activities alone, and the number could be as high as $388 billion if the cost in time and business opportunities lost are included in the figure.

In particular, McAfee proposed that $1 trillion is spent globally in remediation efforts.

Which are the main cyber threats that are alarming governments?

Malware and botnets represent the greatest challenge to security, and according McAfee 75 million unique pieces of malware have been detected in their database, an amazing figure if we consider the potential damage they can bring.

In regards to botnets, we are witnessing an evolution of the technology applied, such as the emergence of Peer-to-Peer based botnets and the mechanisms used in their diffusion.

Many concerns are also related to the business model known as malware-as-service or C2C, adopted by cybercriminals that make possible the use of botnets by those not technically inclined.

In addition to cybercrime, we must take into consideration the increasing adoption of cyber offensives made by foreign governments as well as the hacktivist phenomena.

Both are cyber threats, both could compromise national security, and both could expose sensitive information.

Of concern is the protection of critical infrastructure. According to a recent ICS-CERT report, the number of serious attacks increased from 9 in 2009 to more than 160 in 2011, and the trend demonstrates a consistent growth.

How should governments prepare for cyberwar?

One of the main phenomena which we have witnessed is the recruitment of groups of hackers on the part of governments to carry out offensive actions and to train personnel in the use of deadly new weapon... the keyboard.

Not with bullets but with bits we must now battle, and who better than a hacker can transfer their knowledge on the subject matter? Take for example, the approach used by the U.S. which is trying to find a way to identify and employ the most promising of young hackers.

U.S. Naval Postgraduate School professor John Arquilla recommended in an interview with The Guardian that "most of these sorts of guys can't be vetted in the traditional way. We need a new institutional culture that allows us to reach out to them."

Arquilla referred to about 100 "master hackers" around the world, mainly in Asia and Russia, that could potentially break in to any network, no matter how secure. These forces represent the future of cyber armys all over the world.

But the initiative proposed by Arquilla is not new; consider that China can has already implemented initiatives to recruit hackers for cyber operations. The PLA programs provide an example of how the recruitment of young hackers in their cyber army is crucial.

The Chinese military wrote on its official press:

"The U.S. military is hastening to seize the commanding military heights on the Internet, and another Internet war is being pushed to a stormy peak... Their actions remind us that to protect the nation's Internet security, we must accelerate Internet defense development and accelerate steps to make a strong Internet army."

The recruiting of hackers to train military experts is also being conducted by other countries. India, for example, announced they have engaged two cyber security experts who claimed to have cracked CERN's computer systems. The experts are now conducting a training sessions for Indian government officials.

Ethical hacker Chris Russo reported  that on three occasions he found vulnerabilities in IT system of European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) that have been involved in the discovery of the Higgs-Boson or 'God Particle'.

Russo declared:

"The projections show there is going to be lot of manufacturing in the India. Lot of software will be involved in it. We are here to create awareness among people on probable vulnerabilities in the cyber system..."

The training course was attended by officials from the Indian Cabinet, Air Force, C-DAC, National Technical Research Organization, the Income Tax Department, and Assam's AMTRON along with representatives from private sector entities like Aircel and Cisco.

The experts are associates of the E2 Labs security firm, and  E2 Labs Managing Director Zaki Qureshey stated:

"[The] Next era of wars is not going to be of bomb, gun and shells. It will be led by cyber warfare where most attacks will be on nation's secret data. The idea to conduct such programs evolved after seeing increase in cyber attacks on India,"

I'm completely in agreement with this statement, and more awareness and the training are necessary as components of an effective cyber strategy.

Senior Director Assocham Ajay Sharma said that the talents required to build a team of cyber security experts are mostly available in people with an average age of below 30.

I desire to conclude the post with few simple reflections:

  • We are observing an increase of the number of cyber attacks, and governments are less concerned with the consequences of a single big attack, they tend to be more concerned by the damage related to small and continuous attacks that represent a real cyber threat today
  • The nature of warfare has totally changed, and all governments agree on the necessity to develop a cyber strategies that address the emerging threats and their consequences. For this reason governments are searching for and recruiting young hackers
  • The new cyber threats affect not only national security, but also represent serious threats to private business, and that's why it is absolutely necessary for increased collaboration between the military structure and companies

We are headed the right direction, but the path is going to be very long and fraught with difficulties.

Cross-posted from Security Affairs

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