Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/04/23/cyber_warfare_threats/

For security's sake! Send your kid to hacker camp

No easy fix for doom and gloom

By Dan Goodin

Posted in Security, 23rd April 2009 22:44 GMT

RSA A computer security expert has called on the United States government to train the nation's youth in offensive and defensive cyber technologies so the country is less vulnerable to attacks on its critical infrastructure.

"We need to really encourage young people, high school kids, college students, to embrace cyber security as a field," said Ed Skoudis, founder and senior security consultant for InGuardians. "I'd like to see the United States from a policy perspective engage in...sponsoring hacking challenges to not make it seem like it's an evil thing. Set summer camps to learn more about offensive and defensive technologies and have mentor-ship and sponsorship."

Countries including China and South Korea already sponsor hacking challenges that are designed to identify kids with computer skills, Skoudis said. He said the push in this country should draw lessons from the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik missile. The US responded by plowing huge resources in to training for science and engineering.

Skoudis's comments came during a panel on Thursday at the RSA security conference that drew parallels between the cold war and cyber threats the US faces from nation states, terrorist groups, and criminal hacker gangs. Although a full-blown war involving US networks has yet to happen, smaller skirmishes are already under way, the panelists said.

"It's not about the destruction of physical assets," said Ed Giorgio, president and co-founder of Ponte Technologies and a member of a commission that spent 18 months drafting recommendations for the US's 44th president to shore up its critical infrastructure. "It's about espionage and gaining some sort of information advantage, and frankly I don't see the right response."

The comments come amid multiple reports that networks critical to US national security have already been breached. Last year, the CIO for the Department of Defense conceded that an intrusion on the agency's computers resulted in the theft of an "amazing amount of data" that continued to put the country at risk. Other breaches have involved the US power grid, and Pentagon plans for one of its top fighter jets.

During a speech Wednesday at the RSA conference, Melissa Hathaway, acting senior director for cyberspace for the National Security and Homeland Security councils, said the risk was palpable.

"I worry about these questions every night," she said during a talk that was short on specifics and long on platitudes. "They infiltrate my dreams."

The Obama administration is expected to announce a comprehensive plan for responding to the threat in the next week or so.

Containing the threat

So far, the panelists agreed, the US has yet to find a way to effectively contain the threats it faces in the event of a wide-scale cyber attack. And at least part of the responsibility for that failure is the result of treating the cyber attacks as if they were a traditional national security threat.

Although the cold war and cyber warfare both involve prolonged conflicts with high stakes, they have little else in common, said Scott Algeier, exec director IT-ISAC, a non-profit IT consulting group.

For one thing, throughout the cold war's five decades, it was always clear who the adversaries were, and for another, a tenet known as mutually assured destruction provided a strong incentive not to use nuclear arms. Unfortunately, a US cyber war could involve many different actors who could be scattered across the globe. Many of them believe they have little to lose, so it's much harder to deter them as well.

"The generals had better pay attention to their IT infrastructure before they go to war," said Kenneth Geers, the US representative to the NATO cyber center of excellence. "Your planes, if they cross the airspace and they pull the trigger, what if nothing happens? Theoretically that's quite possible."

By 2010, the majority of US planes will be unmanned, he said. "The attack surface is getting larger and larger, potentially too large to defend," he added.

The panelists sounded a grim tone on the possibility of deterring attacks, mainly because they involve the dynamics of what analysts call asymmetrical warfare. That means an adversary with relatively modest resources is nonetheless able to mount a paralyzing attack on a much larger target.

"One of the things I don't think we'll be able to neutralize is the very low cost that is required to develop attacks," said Skoudis. "Somebody spending a few hundred dollars on a netbook and spending some time mastering various kinds of reverse engineering analysis can come up with computer attacks that can spread to millions of machines."

Hence, Skoudis's calls for a major push a la the US space program in the 1950s or the Manhattan Project, the World War II campaign by the US to build a nuclear bomb. To the extent it's possible at all, deterrence will only come by making attacks too hard and costly to be worth carrying out.

"The guy who's trying to find a flaw and write a big worm and take over millions of machines will have to work that much harder," he explained. "I think it's going to be hard to get there, but that's one of the things we could do." ®