Internet warfare: Are we focusing on the wrong things?

Lack of vision and leadership have left the U.S. woefully unprepared for a cyber catastrophe.

A crystal-clear denouement of U.S readiness to combat threats in cyberspace came at a hearing held March 10 by the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security. After about an hour of listening to testimony from five witnesses representing government and the private sector, committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) asked if any of them felt that the federal government was prepared to deal with a cybercatastrophe. Not one did.

More than seven years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there's widespread consensus that federal efforts to secure cyberinfrastructure are bogged down by a lack of vision, planning and leadership. While the government has struggled to come up with a cohesive national strategy for defending its interests on the Internet, threats in cyberspace have continued to grow and today pose a grave risk to national and economic security.

Adversaries, which include unfriendly governments and militaries, intelligence agencies, organized criminals groups and hactivists, have by most accounts already penetrated U.S government and private networks or are actively engaged in doing so.

Most of the efforts appear to be focused on leeching away secrets from public and private IT sectors for profit and for espionage. A report released in March by the University of Toronto and think tank The SecDev Group showed how a group with apparent ties to China has systematically breached systems in more than 100 countries, apparently for espionage purposes. At the same time, the potential for attackers to disrupt vital networks and systems in critical infrastructure areas such as banking and power is growing daily.

The threat that has not going unnoticed. Earlier this month, Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) introduced new legislation that would give the federal government sweeping new authority on the cybersecurity front.

The legislation would give the government a more direct role in developing and enforcing baseline standards, not just for agencies but also on companies in critical infrastructure areas such as financial services, utilities and health care. It would empower the president to declare a cyberemergency if needed and allow him to disconnect federal or private-sector networks in the interests of national security.

The current administration has made cybersecurity a priority. In February, President Barack Obama ordered Melissa Hathaway, a Bush administration official who is credited with helping to develop a multibillion-dollar classified initiative aimed at better securing federal systems, to conduct a 60-day review of the government's cybersecurity efforts.

What that report says and any strategies and policies that result from it are going to be critical in the near and long term. "Our digital infrastructure has become the most important underpinning of U.S. national and economic security," says Amit Yoran, former director of the National Cybersecurity Division at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). "In order to make good resource-allocation decisions, we need to understand the risk better," Yoran says.

According to him and several others across industry and government, these are some of the key things the feds need to do in the near term.

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