Cyber Espionage, a Global Problem

Jim Garrettson and Richard Clarke

In the wake of reports of more countries being targeted by complex malware, cyber espionage has become an increasingly global concern for government and industry leaders over the past year, making loss of sensitive information and data an everyday problem for most nations.

Although cyber espionage is relatively new way of stealing secret government and corporate data, security training company Spy-Ops estimated last year roughly 140 countries and more than 50 terrorist and criminal/extremist groups were developing cyber weapons and espionage capabilities.

While conventional snooping relies on clandestine operatives to gather intelligence, cyber espionage uses computer systems and data combined with conventional techniques to gain intelligence and sensitive information. To penetrate the desired systems, cyber spies launch cyber attacks, using techniques that involve Trojans and spyware to gain access–over and over again.

Case in point: U.S. military and civilian networks are probed thousands of times a day, and the systems of NATO headquarters are attacked at least 100 times a day, according to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that cyber attacks have become a new form of permanent, low-level warfare,” he said, according to The Wall Street Journal.

More recently, last week former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told RSA Conference Europe nations should adopt Cold War-era methods to deal with Internet-based attacks.

“[President Eisenhower’s workshopping exercise] Project Solarium gave us the theory of deterrence, where rules of the road were clearly understood,” he said, according to ZdNet UK. “An attack on the U.S. or its allies with a nuclear weapon would be responded to with overwhelming force.”

Countries should be able to respond to cyber attacks “with overwhelming force,” Chertoff said. He told ZDNet UK ultimate attribution was difficult for cyber attacks, but said nation states should be able to respond against technologies in countries being used as a platform for attack, regardless of whether that specific country is behind the attack.

Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism czar in the Clinton and Bush administrations and current chair of  Good Harbor Consulting, LLC, repeated his message that espionage has evolved from clandestine meetings a la Robert Hanssen to warfare conducted by the click of a mouse, from thousands of miles away. The difference between such cyber espionage activities and actual cyber war represents just a “few keystrokes,” Clarke said, speaking at a Potomac Officers Club event Oct. 5.

The United States is naturally not alone in this emerging threat. Recent news reports from Australia indicate the Australian military networks are under continuous attack by foreign spy agencies. In Finland, reports last week emerged about how corporate espionage is spreading and the Scandinavian nation was recently targeted by the infamous Stuxnet worm. Also last week, British spy chief Iain Lobban revealed how the U.K. is engaged in a cyber war with terrorists, organized criminals and enemy states. Lobban said worms targeting government systems have already caused significant disruption, and e-crime is costing the nation “well into the billions.”

In the United States, the solution to battle cyber spies appears to be a global collaboration between the Pentagon and NATO, experts say. In September, Lynn said NATO is the perfect platform to fight the cyber threat, as the alliance understands the need for cybersecurity and is already moving in that direction.

The deputy secretary addressed the nature of what collective defense means in the cyberspace, stressing a collaborative protection does not mean opening up networks to all users, but instead calling for NATO members sharing information on attacks and solutions.

Interestingly enough, although cyber espionage has been decried by government leaders and industry experts, the public seems to have a different opinion. According to an August report from Sophos, the majority of survey respondent said they were fine with a little bit of cyber spying. Sixty three percent of those polled believe it is OK for their nation to engage in cyber espionage–23 percent said yes at any time, 40 percent said only during wartime, and 37 percent said no.

Furthermore, one in 14 respondents believe denial of service attacks against another country’s communication or financial websites are acceptable during peacetime. Roughly half said it was OK only in wartime, while 44 percent said DoS attacks were never acceptable.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, said it may be surprising so many seem to think cyber espionage is acceptable practice; however, by giving approving these kind of activities, “you’d also have to expect to be on the receiving end too,” he concluded.

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