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Gathering rumors of cyberwar

Attacks, difficult to trace or deter, stir alarm.

A Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence by NATO staff member walks through a closed operational area of the center in Tallinn, Nov. 10, 2008. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

SAN FRANCISCO — The world's developed nations are awakening to the potential that cyberwar could disrupt their finances, communications and utilities.

Individuals have already experienced elevated risk of cybercrimes like identity theft, and governments are now becoming wary of coordinated attacks on a grander scale.

“Our technological advantage is a key to America's military dominance, but our defense and military networks are under constant attack,” President Barack Obama said in a recent address on cybersecurity.

The most notable case of cyberwar thus far was the series of attacks that hit Estonia in 2007 after that Baltic nation decided to move a World War II memorial of sentimental importance to Russians. Estonia blamed Russia for the three-week long disruption to its financial and communications networks, charges that the Russians denied. Earlier this year, an activist with Russian youth group Nashi told Reuters that he had his friends had been behind the attacks, and that they had acted without the authorization of the Russian government.

Whatever their genesis, those attacks alarmed NATO officials, who reacted by opening a new electronic defense unit, the Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence, in the Estonian capital of Tallinn.

One of the center's U.S. experts, Kenneth Geers, told London's Guardian newspaper that cyberwar was a tempting tactic because it left no fingerprints and required relatively few resources. “In certain ways, this is the golden age for attackers,” Geers said. “Over the past 15 years, the world has rushed to connect networks together because they want to have their power. But the rush to connect everything was ahead of security.”

Geers has detailed earlier incidents of cyberwarfare in an online presentation titled “Cyber Jihad and the Globalization of Warfare.” He cited one flareup in 2000 when Israeli and pro-Palestinian forces engaged in mutual attacks to disrupt each others' propaganda efforts. The Israelis sought to bring down sites belonging to the Palestinian National Authority, Hamas and Hezbollah among other targets. Counterattacks from the pro-Palestinian side targeted Israeli e-mail and e-commerce sites as well as government and military systems.

Espionage has been another recurring goal of cyber attacks. In 2007, hackers from the Chinese People's Liberation Army were thought to have attacked the British Foreign Office, among other government sites in the United Kingdom. Those attacks were reportedly carried out by a group of Chinese hackers that U.S. military authorities had dubbed Titan Rain. That Chinese group was blamed for a series of earlier espionage attacks on U.S. defense networks.

More recently Western governments have expressed alarm that foreign powers were going beyond espionage and were now intent on taking control of vital systems that are connected to the Internet. In April, the British press reported that intelligence officials in the U.K. were concerned that new telecommunications hardware being supplied by the Chinese firm Huawei might contain malicious software code. Their concern was that this code might open a back door in British online networks that would enable the Chinese to disrupt financial, utility, water and food systems.

Shortly after those reports surfaced in the British press, the Wall Street Journal published a story that quoted anonymous U.S. intelligence sources saying that Russia, China and other countries were mapping the U.S. electric power grid and other infrastructure with an eye toward shutting down key systems in time of confrontation or conflict.

The immediacy and likelihood of such threats is difficult to assess. But it seems clear that the Internet has become the proverbial double-edged sword. It has brought information riches to citizens of the developed nations, who benefit from pervasive network, while also making them and their governments vulnerable to virtually untraceable attack. Defenses against cyberwar and cybercrime will remain works in progress for some time as governments, companies and individuals address this danger in their midst.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/technology/090608/gathering-rumors-cyberwar