Countries risk cyber terrorism, security expert tells summit

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Governments that fail to protect computer networks could face devastating attack, says former Pentagon director

The spectre of crashing power grids, stalled air control towers, hospitals brought to a standstill and defences left wide open was raised at the first cyber-security world summit that ended today, when politicians, officials, military leaders and industrialists warned that the US and other countries were failing to protect computer networks and were vulnerable to attacks of catastrophic proportions.

Harry Raduege, former director at the Pentagon agency responsible for the computer network, said cyber attacks were growing in intensity and sophistication. “We have experienced a number of attacks against the financial sector, on the power grid and against our defence capability,” he told the meeting in Dallas.

Raduege, chairman of the Deloitte Centre for Cyber Innovation, added: “What we are concerned about most is the vulnerability of the system and that potential attackers are gaining more skills. So it never ends. It demands constant attention.”

Patrick Pailloux, director-general of the French network and information security agency, said he had nightmares about attacks on the electricity system, transport, water supplies, the financial sector and hospitals, which are dependent on computers. “My biggest nightmare is not having enough time to prepare,” he said.

The EastWest Institute summit was attended by 400 representatives of 30 countries, including the US and Estonia, which claim to have been victims of cyber attacks, and the countries they blame for perpetrating them, China and Russia.

Hundreds of thousands of attacks are launched round the world daily, with attackers including student hackers and criminal gangs, and these cost billions of dollars. But attacks launched by countries against other countries are causing the greatest concern. The biggest so far appears to have been on Estonia in 2007, when attacks on its computers brought parts of the country to a standstill, and Georgia in 2008. Both blamed Russia, which denies the charge.

There was a cyber attack on the US last 4 July, which Washington suspects North Korea was behind and which it claims was aimed at closing down federal agencies. The US has also accused China of launching attacks, mainly aimed at espionage.

A Republican congressman, Michael McCaul, who helped guide a bill through the House in February to improve the security of US networks against cyber attacks, said: “When you mention cyber security to most members of Congress, their eyes glaze over and yet it is one of the most serious threats this century. We are good at offensive capability but we are not good on defence.”

A Cyber Storm simulation exercise is scheduled to take place this year to test US readiness. The US will for the first time invite 15 other countries to participate.

It is the most advanced country at conducting cyber warfare, followed by Russia, China and Israel.

The attack on Estonia – in which millions of emails swamped the websites of the government, parliament, banks, and the media – was described at the summit as a wake-up call, offering a glimpse of the potential devastation that can be wreaked through targeting computer systems.

The Estonian justice minister, Rein Lang, who was at the summit, said: “Everyone should be worried, not just Estonia.”

Lin Zhengrong, deputy director-general of China’s internet affairs bureau of the state council information office, dismissed suggestions that China was the source of cyber attacks and said China was also a victim of such attacks.

Michael Dell, chairman of the eponymous information technology company, hinted there might eventually have to be a two-tier web system, one that was secure and the other the current open and anonymous system that Americans often refer to as the Wild West. “We have an enormous number of bad actors who are able to act completely anonymously,” said Dell.

Asked if the threat was overblown, Dell replied: “I do not think it is, unfortunately.”

The second summit is to be held in London next year. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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