U.S. cyber war policy needs new focus, experts say

U.S. policies toward defending against cyber warfare need to take a different approach than the government has against other forms of attack, three cybersecurity experts said today.

It will be difficult for the U.S. government to voice and follow through with a policy of cyber deterrence, like it has with nuclear attacks, said Martin Libicki, a senior management scientist specializing in cybersecurity at Rand, a nonprofit think tank. First, it's difficult to identify attackers, especially when some nations appear to be sponsoring private attackers, he said during a meeting of the Congressional Cyber Caucus in Washington.

But it may also be difficult for the U.S. to follow through with threats of counterattacks, when U.S. cyber experts don't know how much damage the attacks could do, he added. With cyberattacks, some countries may be willing to gamble on the U.S. capability, unlike with nuclear attacks, he said.

"Any deterrence policy is designed to scare people away," he said. "The problem is, though, if you can't execute it, you're bluffing. It's possible to believe people will call our bluff. If it turns out we can't do what we say, we not only look embarrassed for ourselves, but we end up calling all of our other deterrents into question."

Libicki and two other cybersecurity experts, talking to members of the Congress and their staff members, said that crafting the right cyber war policy will be difficult. The forum was organized by members of Congress interested in cyber defense policy.

Speakers at the forum noted that the U.S. Department of Defense began setting up a unified cyber command earlier this year. But it's still unclear what the command's cyber warfare policies will look like, said Paul Kurtz, a partner at Good Harbor Consulting focused on cybersecurity.

"On the one hand, you shouldn't go around saying you're not going to deter, and you're not going to retaliate," Libicki said. "On the other hand, actually going out and saying it can lead to a lot of problems."

One problem with a cyber warfare policy is the lack of definition of what constitutes an act of cyber war, Kurtz added. There's no line separating what constitutes a simple cyber attack from cyber war, he said.

With no definitions in place, it's hard to have a public debate about what the U.S. government's cyber warfare policy should be, he said.

In addition, it may not be wise to label some countries as cyber adversaries, he said. Although the Chinese government often gets blamed for sponsoring cyber attacks, the U.S. government needs to engage the Chinese about cyber defense, Kurtz said.

"We need to still have discussions with them," he said. "What is responsible behavior? Attacking critical assets is irresponsible."

The U.S. government needs to recognize, however, that cyber attacks can cause "horrendous damage," added Scott Borg, director and chief economist of the nonprofit U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, which researches the effects of cyber attacks.

Cyber attacks on a large number of electricity generators could have a lasting effect, with little U.S. capability to support new parts for damaged generators, he said. Most of the parts for electricity generators come from China and India, he said. In 2007, security researchers were able to destroy a generator through a cyber attack, according to news reports.

"We can't figure out a way to replace them that doesn't take months," he said.

For the first couple of days, an area with electricity loss functions fairly well, Borg said. After eight to 10 days, 72 percent of all economic activity in an area without electricity would stop, he said.

Shutting down the electricity in a large area of the U.S. for months, it would have a similar level of damage to the economy of a nuclear attack, Borg said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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