SAN FRANCISCO -- The time to address cyberwar is now, several experts at the RSA Security Conference held here this week said.
Disagreements may persist on what constitutes an overt act of cyberwar or how to recognize such an act, they acknowledged. And questions also remain on whether cyberwar" is an accurate term to describe deliberate attacks against critical infrastructure targets by enemies that may or may not be state-sponsored.
Even so, the time has arrived for the U.S. to develop a strategic plan for dealing with threats against critical infrastructure and those targeting U.S. economic interests, they said.
"I don't think we are in a cyberwar right now," said Michael Chertoff, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and an independent consultant. "But we would be foolish not to recognize the potential," he noted during a keynote panel discussion at the trade show. "There is no doubt that cyber warfare is going to be within the domain of conflict" very shortly.
Chertoff and other panelists, including former National Security Agency Director Mike McConnell and security guru Bruce Schneier, said that while there has been a lot of hype surrounding the issue, the core concerns remain unchanged.
" 'Cyberwar' is a sexier term than a 'cyberattack,' " so a lot of people have been throwing the word around, Schneier said.
"It's being talked about because that's what sells," he added. "There's a lot of push for budget and power [within organizations], and overstating the threat is a good way to get people scared."
But the fact is that more "warlike tactics," including politically motivated hacking and attacks against critical infrastructure, are increasingly taking place, Schneier said. "When you are attacked in cyberspace, who defends you?" he asked. "You don't know who is attacking you and why," and this uncertainty can be a problem.
According to McConnell, the real challenge is to define the right legislative framework for dealing with the problem. Attacks against U.S. government and commercial targets leech terabytes' worth of intellectual property out of the country on a regular basis, he said.
Such espionage is every bit as insidious as any threat, McConnell noted. "The point I want to highlight is, let's not sell short the idea of electronic espionage," he said. "We as a nation need to be thinking about it."
The very nature of the Internet makes it hard to impose the same sort of rules that exist in the physical realm, the panelists said. Attacks on the Internet can be carried out with the same level of efficacy by state-sponsored actors and criminal groups. Unlike in the physical realm, the same attack tools are available and can be used by anyone.
Attacks in cyberspace are increasingly getting "democratized," Schneier said. The key is knowing how to respond.
Expecting market forces to somehow recognize the threat and respond to it in a strategic manner is unrealistic, the panelists said. While private companies are responsible for a large portion of the Internet infrastructure, they need an incentive to be more proactively involved in defending it.
What needs to be decided is how much of role the federal government should take in enforcing better security and how much the private sector can be motivated to take the right measures, Chertoff said. The crucial issue is to figure out "how to handle the need to defend against high-end attacks. We need to understand who has the responsibility to do what, and when," he said. "We need to have some sort of declared policies" about response at a strategic, national level.
Discussions about a national strategy for cyberwar have assumed greater importance recently. Google's admission last year that its servers were compromised by attackers based out of China, and the attacks against critical targets in Estonia a few years ago, have brought into sharp focus how devastating organized attacks can be.
"We are at the brink of a cyberwar arms race. There's too much of a chance of this going off accidentally," Schneier said, while stressing the need for international agreements to determine rules of engagement.
What's vital is that the government doesn't wait for a catastrophic event to happen before taking action, McConnell said.
"The odds are we, will wait," he added.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.