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Cyberwar hype is obscuring real security threats

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Cyberwar hype is inhibiting government attempts to develop an appropriate response to cybersecurity threats, say computer scientists.

A heavyweight study by UK computer scientists for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concludes that it is "highly unlikely" there will ever be a "pure cyber war”, comparable with recent conflicts in Afghanistan or the Balkans. Suggestions to the contrary are down to "heavy lobbying" by suppliers, the report's authors – Professor Peter Sommer of the London School of Economics and Dr Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford – conclude.

It is unlikely that there will ever be a true cyberwar. The reasons are: many critical computer systems are protected against known exploits and malware so that designers of new cyberweapons have to identify new weaknesses and exploits; the effects of cyberattacks are difficult to predict – on the one hand they may be less powerful than hoped but may also have more extensive outcomes arising from the interconnectedness of systems, resulting in unwanted damage to perpetrators and their allies. More importantly, there is no strategic reason why any aggressor would limit themselves to only one class of weaponry.

Instead of a standalone war in cyberspace, it is far more likely that cyber-conflicts will take place alongside conventional attacks by nation states and propaganda offensives. Cyber-spying is a real enough threat but it isn't helpful to conflate this threat with cyberwar – cyberespionage is not a “few keystrokes away from cyberwar”, the authors argue.

The study, aimed at global businesses and policymakers, concludes that hype over cyber-war (or information warfare) is clouding judgements and responses to real threats, such as denial of service attacks against critical infrastructure elements, perhaps along the lines of high-profile denial of service attacks against Estonia back in 2007.

Part of the problem in assessing cybersecurity responses comes from treating an easily ignoring phishing email as equivalent to a targeted, disruptive cyber-attack.

“We don’t help ourselves using ‘cyberwar’ to describe espionage or hacktivist blockading or defacing of websites, as recently seen in reaction to WikiLeaks” said Professor Sommer, visiting professor at LSE.

“Nor is it helpful to group trivially avoidable incidents like routine viruses and frauds with determined attempts to disrupt critical national infrastructure.”

The authors list "careful system design" and user education as well as the use of security products to mitigate risks. Applying contingency plans for disaster recovery is a more sensible course than treating cybersecurity as a war between miscreants and system defenders, they explain.

“We think that a largely military approach to cybersecurity is a mistake," Dr Brown said. "Most targets in the critical national infrastructure of communications, energy, finance, food, government, health, transport, and water are in the private sector. Because it is often difficult to be certain who is attacking you from cyberspace, defence by deterrence does not work.”

The military do have a role in cybersecurity, but that comes in protecting their own systems as well as developing potential offensive capabilities rather than taking the lead on cybersecurity, say the computer scientists.

Future shock

The study is part of a broader OECD review of Future Global Shocks that also covers possible disruption of the world financial system, climate change and possible future pandemics.

Very few single cyber-related events have the potential to cause global disruption, Sommer and Brown conclude. However, cyberattacks that cause "localised misery" – due to loss of telecoms service, for example – are a growing threat.

In addition, the report says, reliable net comms are important in co-ordinating response to other events. Governments therefore need to prepare contingencies to recover from either accidental or deliberate collapse of net services and telecoms.

Crucially governments need to work with public sector organisations because in most countries the elements of critical national infrastructure are in private ownership.

Possible cyber-threats might include attacks against internet routing protocols (such as BGP) and communication disruption as a result of a massive solar flare. These two problems might cause disruption on a global scale, whereas computer viruses or denial of service attacks are only likely to cause a little local difficulty. More disruptive attacks on a wider scale would need to combine "zero-day exploits; careful research of the intended targets; and methods of concealment both of the attack method and the perpetrators", among other factors.

The recent Stuxnet worm, targeted malware which infected industrial control systems and is blamed for high failure rates in high-speed uranium enrichment centrifuges in Iran – disrupting the country's controversial nuclear programme as a result – is one of the few attacks to date that combine these elements. ®

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