Skip the navigation

After Stuxnet: The new rules of cyberwar

November 5, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Falling Behind

Most experts agree that critical infrastructure providers have a long way to go. Melissa Hathaway, president of Hathaway Global Strategies, was the Obama administration's acting senior director for cyberspace in 2009. That year, she issued a Cyberspace Policy Review report that included recommendations for better protecting critical infrastructure, but there hasn't been much movement toward implementing those recommendations, she says. A draft National Cyber Incident Response plan has been published, but a national-level exercise, conducted in June, showed that the plan was insufficient to protect critical infrastructure.

"A lot of critical infrastructure is not even protected from basic hacking. I don't think the industry has done enough to address the risk, and they're looking for the government to somehow offset their costs," Hathaway says. There is, however, a broad recognition that critical infrastructure is vulnerable and that something needs to be done about it.

The Department of Defense has a direct stake in the security of the country's critical infrastructure because the military depends on it. "The Defense Science Board Task Force did a review of DOD reliance on critical infrastructure and found that an astute opponent could attack and harm the DOD's capabilities," says James Lewis, a senior fellow specializing in cybersecurity at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

At a forum in July, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander was asked to rate the state of U.S. preparedness for an attack on critical infrastructure on a scale of 1 to 10. He responded, "I would say around a 3." The reasons include the inability to rapidly detect and respond to attacks, a lack of cybersecurity standards and a general unwillingness by both private companies and government agencies to share detailed information about threats and attacks. The DOD and intelligence agencies don't share information because they tend to overclassify it, says Hayden. And critical infrastructure providers prefer to keep things to themselves because they don't want to expose customer data and they're concerned about the liability issues that could arise and the damage their reputations could suffer if news of an attack were widely reported.

"The rules of the game are a little fuzzy on what you can and cannot share," says Edward Amoroso, chief security officer and a senior vice president at AT&T, noting that his biggest concern is the threat of a large-scale DDoS attack that could take down the Internet's backbone. "I need attorneys, and I need to exercise real care when interacting with the government," he says.

In some cases, critical infrastructure providers are damned if they do share information and damned if they don't. "If the government provides a signature to us, some policy observers would say that we're operating on behalf of that government agency," he says. All parties agree that, in a crisis, everyone should be able to share information in real time. "But talk to five different people and you'll get five different opinions about what is OK," says Amoroso. Unfortunately, government policy initiatives intended to resolve the issue, such as the Cybersecurity Act, have failed to move forward.

"It was disappointing for us that this nonpartisan issue became so contentious," says Weatherford. The lack of progress by policymakers is a problem for the DHS and the effectiveness of its National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC). The center, which is open around the clock, was designed to be the nexus for information sharing between private-sector critical infrastructure providers -- and the one place to call when there's a problem. "I want NCCIC to be the '911' of cybersecurity," he says. "We may not have all the answers or all the right people, but we know where they are."

Meanwhile, both the number of attacks and their level of sophistication have been on the rise. Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer at security consultancy Mandiant, says electric utilities and other businesses are under constant assault by foreign governments. "We estimate that 30% to 40% of the Fortune 500 have an active Chinese or Russian intrusion problem right now," he says. However, he adds, "I think the threat in that area is exaggerated," because the goal of such attacks is to steal intellectual property, not destroy infrastructure. (Read our timeline of critical infrastructure attacks over the years.)

Others disagree. "We've seen a new expertise developing around industrial control systems. We're seeing a ton of people and groups committed to the very technical aspects of these systems," says Howard Schmidt, who served as cybersecurity coordinator and special assistant to the president until last May and is now an independent consultant.

"People are too quick to dismiss the link between intellectual property loss through cyber intrusions and attacks against infrastructure," says Kurtz. "Spear phishing events can lead to the exfiltration of intellectual property, and that can have a spillover effect into critical infrastructure control system environments."

Global Threat

Hacking on the Rise

Cyberattackers fall into three primary categories: criminal organizations interested in stealing for monetary gain, hacktivists bent on furthering their own agendas, and foreign governments, or their agents, aiming to steal information or lay the groundwork for later attacks.

The Chinese are the most persistent, with several tiers of groups participating, says Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer at security consultancy Mandiant. Below official state-sponsored attacks are breaches by state militias, quasi-military and quasi-government organizations, and what he calls "patriotic hackers."

"It's almost a career path," says Bejtlich.

There's disagreement on which groups are the most sophisticated or dangerous, but that's not what matters. What matters is that the universe of attackers is expanding and they have ready access to an ever-growing wealth of knowledge about hacking, along with black hat tools helpful in launching attacks. "Over the next five years, low-level actors will get more sophisticated and the Internet [will expand] into areas of the Third World where the rule of law is weaker," says Gen. Michael Hayden, principal at security consultancy The Chertoff Group. "The part of the world responsible for criminal groups such as the Somali pirates is going to get wired."

Robert L. Mitchell



Our Commenting Policies
Internet of Things: Get the latest!
Internet of Things

Our new bimonthly Internet of Things newsletter helps you keep pace with the rapidly evolving technologies, trends and developments related to the IoT. Subscribe now and stay up to date!