Friday, February 27, 2009

Cyber Attacks : The New Weapon

Cyber Attacks: The New Weapon

Cyber Attacks: The new weapon against government networks in recent months illustrate how states like China are discovering the power of a new weapon that is less expensive and more discreet than battalions of tanks or spies.

Cyber assaults blamed on China have struck sensitive government sites in Britain, France, Germany and the United States - including the Pentagon and the French defence ministry, officials recently confirmed to major media. China denies the accusations.

"A state can use these tools to exert its power. States are beginning to understand that, and in a lot of ways the Chinese are taking the lead, and the Russians as well," said Ned Moran of the Terrorism Research Centre.

"A country like China is realising that instead of building a robust espionage network, based on people in a country and recruiting spies, they can do the same thing at a very low cost by executing cyber attacks," Moran said.

The expert at the Virginia-based Terrorism Research Centre, a branch of Total Intelligence Solutions - a firm founded by former CIA officials - said it was clear the recent spate of hacking came from China.

"You can detect patterns, coming from the same country, the same network, with the same type of techniques," he said.

"That gives you a sense that it's probably coming from the Chinese, based on what I've seen. The Chinese government either is doing it, or is looking the other way as Chinese citizens are doing it."

Operating quietly and methodically, the cyber attackers identify key people in an organisation and then send them emails to penetrate the network, he said.

"They send you an email that looks like it comes from your boss, with a link that they ask you to click on. Once they are in your computer they can get into your network and they start looking for information and very quietly copying it and moving it out," Moran said.

The emails target two to three people "to stay under the radar," he said. "They are very patient."

Successful attempts at breaking into defence networks raise the possibility of shutting down communications between a commander and forces in the field, Moran said.

"They would be able to control a ship, not change its GPS (global navigation) coordinate but more likely cut off communications," said Moran.

The Pentagon reportedly suspects Beijing of preparing a plan to disable the US aircraft carrier fleet, while the Financial Times reported this month the Chinese military had broken into a computer network used by the office of Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

In an apparent warning to China, officials from European and US governments have confirmed cyber attacks and blamed the breaches on Beijing.

"Typically when these attacks get announced, they have happened many months before," Moran said. "Because when it happens, you don't want anybody to know that you know these attacks are taking place."

According to Moran, official confirmation from Europe and the United States indicates Western governments are faced with a growing threat from information warfare.

An attack on Estonia's information network earlier this year, allegedly carried out from Russia, represented a certain type of economic-oriented cyber assault, Moran said.

"They shut down their banks, the (Estonian) government's ability to collect taxes, the media's capacity to get information out to the public," he said.

The move represented a Russian warning to Estonia, he said, "without encircling it with tanks."

Although Estonia is a member of NATO, the alliance chose not to respond to the cyber attack amid initial confusion over whether an attack was indeed under way, he said.

"Basically the Russians got away with it, and they achieved their goals," he said.

The case of Estonia underscores how cyberwarfare can deliver results in a way that in the past only large spy networks or vast armies could produce.

"States are starting to figure out how cyberwarfare can help them achieve their goals, espionage, economic embargo, or coercion - to cause pain to your enemies so they change their behaviour," Moran said.

Cyber warfare is now a common pursuit among most states, said Bruce Schneier, who has written books on the subject. "Everybody does it," he said.

Moreover, government networks are plagued with "lousy security" arrangements, he said. And as government information networks become more complex, the networks become increasingly vulnerable.

"Complexity is the worst enemy of security," Schneier said.

But he said the dangers of cyber warfare should not be overstated, saying US battle ships could not be steered remotely by a cyber hacker.

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