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Fog of cyberwar: internet always favors the offense

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Black Hat Fighting wars that target computer networks is fraught with risks that don't exist in traditional warfare, raising the stakes for future conflicts, a retired US general told security professionals Thursday.

“You guys made the cyber world look like the north German plain, and then you bitch and moan because you get invaded," Retired General Michael Hayden said during a keynote speech at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas. “We all get treated like Poland on the web, invaded from the west on even-numbered centuries, invaded from the east on odd-numbered centuries.

“The inherent geography of this domain – everything plays to the offense. There's almost nothing inherent in the domain that plays to the defense. That really affects how you think about it when you're a GI.”

A former director of the CIA and deputy director of National Intelligence, Hayden said he has come to realize that interconnected power grids, computer networks, and other critical infrastructure represent an entirely new realm of war, augmenting the domains of land, sea, air, and space that have existed for decades or millennia. He warned that militaries and politicians around the world still don't have a firm grasp of what it means to engage in warfare there.

“We're thinking a lot about it, but not very clearly,” he said. We throw the term 'cyber war' at anything unpleasant that seems to be happening on the net.”

Too many people, Hayden said, are too quick to brand any kind of computer intrusion by a nation state as an act of cyber war, even when all that's happening is sensitive information is being stolen.

“That's espionage,” he said. “States do that all the time.”

Another confusion stems from thinking that conflicts that target networks are like video games, without realizing that denial-of-service attacks, covert malware campaigns and network intrusions have real-world consequences that create “pops” in physical space. The risk is that nations that take conflicts into the cyber realm will realize unintended collateral damages.

“There's a reasonable chance that if you're not careful, the physical thing that went pop to make this site go away is in Houston or some other place protected by that thing called the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Hayden said. “The ubiquity of cyber access makes this far more complicated than it seems when you say we ought to take that site down (because) it's showing videos of our soldiers being tortured.”

Computer-based conflicts are also challenging because it's often impossible to know where attacks are coming from and retaliation is not always possible. In nuclear conflicts, by contrast, there has traditionally been a clear understanding of who is responsible, the effects, and the concept of mutually assured destruction has offered a powerful deterrent.

Ultimately, Hayden said it was up to people who help shape the design of the internet need to build more defenses in it to make it more resilient.

“Rivers, hills and mountains become a military officer's friend” by creating boundaries that thwart enemies, he said. “You're going to build the rivers and hills into the web. You're going to create geography that is going to help the defense.” ®

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