Cyber War! What is it good for? Absolutely not...stealing commercial secrets

Contributor:  Andrew Elwell
Posted:  11/21/2011  12:00:00 AM EST
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Tags:   Cyber

Norway’s National Security Agency (NSM) recently revealed that ten of its leading defence and energy companies had been targeted by a cyber hacking group in series of unprecedented attacks.

"This is the first time that a hacking campaign of this magnitude has been detected in Norway," Kjetil Berg Veire, NSM spokesman, told the AFP.

While ten firms have contacted Norwegian authorities regarding the attacks, the NSM expects the true number of attacks to be higher than this.

"We have to suppose that the actual number (of companies affected) is much higher, but that many (firms) have not been in contact" with the government, NSM said.

The hackers targeted key individuals in each organisation with phishing emails to gain access to their servers, passwords and confidential documents.

Large-scale cyber attacks are still in their infancy, the most efficient and effective process for managing the fallout has not yet been settled. Last week Centurion Intelligence Partners (CIP), a provider of intelligence and security services, announced that it has seen a surge in urgent requests for crisis preparation services.

“Crisis planning and prevention is something CEOs sometimes put at the bottom of their list of priorities. Now, it has jumped to the top. They realize they are vulnerable to cyber and physical attacks and they are responsible for the safety of their employees and the continuity of their operations,” said CIP President Col. Frank Bragg (Ret.).

Tackling the issue head on, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (U.S. SEC) released its guidance document on cybersecurity last month, stating that all public companies were required to disclose any cyber attack against them.

“For a number of years, registrants have migrated toward increasing dependence on digital technologies to conduct their operations. As this dependence has increased, the risks to registrants associated with cybersecurity have also increased, resulting in more frequent and severe cyber incidents,” according to the U.S. SEC. “As a result, we determined that it would be beneficial to provide guidance that assists registrants in assessing what, if any, disclosures should be provided about cybersecurity matters in light of each registrant’s specific facts and circumstances.”

Context: cyber crime, not cyber war

Norway’s security agency said that, “The attacks have on several occasions come when the companies have been involved in large-scale contract negotiations”. Commercially, financially this is bad news for those Norwegian companies hit. But does this latest example of cyber crime present a clear and present danger to us?

Richard de Silva recently discussed the likelihood of a “digital 9/11” in his thought-provoking piece on cyber warfare. But it is important here not to blur the lines between cyber war and cyber crime. Every time we read that another company has fallen prey to a cyber attack – of which there are many, including Sony, Booz Allen Hamilton and Lockheed Martin – we should not really be surprised. Let alone alarmed.

Remember the Cold War? 50 years of espionage and clandestine operations. Commercial secrets and intellectual property have been trading back and forth between East and West in one form or another since the Industrial Revolution. It is only the mystique of the phrase “cyber attack” that is new.

That is not to say these attacks on Norwegian companies are not serious and that they shouldn’t be cause for concern. They are, but they should be put into context.

As with every reported incident of cyber crime, the blame has fallen at the feet of the Chinese. Earlier this year The Times revealed that China had admitted for the first time to the existence of a crack team of cyber warriors, known as the “Blue Army”. It brings together the nation’s elite cyber personnel, although officials claimed that the Blue Army was only established to protect China from cyber attacks, not to penetrate other nations’ defences.

Viruses like Stuxnet, a computer worm of unprecedented sophistication that targeted and took control of Iran’s uranium enrichment plant last year, are what we should really be protecting against. Stealing sensitive commercial documents is one thing, controlling a hostile nation’s nuclear strike capability is quite another.

Andrew Elwell Contributor:   Andrew Elwell

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