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Ex US internal-security overlord bigs up cyber menace

Chertoff fears 'dangerous intrusions'

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Cyberattacks are the top threat to future national security, according to the former head of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Michael Chertoff.

It's well known that Chertoff, who is now the co-founder and managing principal of private security consultancy the Chertoff Group, has a healthy respect for the power of technology. Investments by the DHS during his tenure there included SBInet (known here at The Reg as the Eye-o-Sauron stare-towers); handheld lobster spy-beam scanners; and Project Hostile Intent, a non-invasive mind probe to separate the dastardly from the law-abiding.

However, Chertoff now worries that power will be used more and more often to attack financial and political systems, as we've already seen happen in Estonia and Georgia.

In April 2007, websites of the Estonian parliament, banks, ministries and the media were the victims of a number of cyberattacks while the country rowed with Russia over Soviet-era war memorials in its capital Tallinn. The following year, websites in Georgia were attacked before and during the military action with Russia. Russia denied being behind either attack and experts were unable to come up with the culprits, highlighting the difficulty of tracing many cybercrimes.

"Cybercrime is probably the cutting edge of where we're going to be looking at threats in the future," Chertoff said at a lecture at the London School of Economics this morning, adding that improvements in the internet "unquestionably create greater risks".

As the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks nears, Chertoff gave a whistle-stop tour of the state of security in the US for the last decade, drawing particular attention to the global but fragmented nature of modern terror networks and how they are facilitated by technologies that allow movement of money, people and communications around the world.

He said that the US's attempts to draw military and law-enforcement intelligence together and use it to intercept these movements has helped reduce the threat of al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and stopped terrorists from making it over the border. But he admitted that this pressure on al Qaeda has led to new leaders and cells popping up in Yemen and Somalia and an increase in homegrown terrorists.

"If you radicalise an American citizen, you don't have to get them in the country," he said. (Nonetheless Chertoff and his firm are fully invested in full-body scanners.)

He also said that cybercrime was "the one area where we've done less than I'd like" in terms of national defence.

"The more and more technology is developing, the more we're getting very dangerous intrusions into our cyberspace," he said. ®

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