June 19, 2010

Cyberattacks Could Leave Nations Paralyzed

Experts warned Friday that NATO governments and the public must wake up to the threat of cyberattacks, which could paralyze a nation far more easily than conventional warfare.

Melissa Hathaway, a former U.S. cyber tsar, said at a conference in Estonia organized by the trans-Atlantic alliance's IT defense unit that "cybercrime and cyberespionage are topics that can't be ignored."

"Key infrastructure, including power stations, have become vulnerable due to their dependence on Internet connections," Hathaway said.

"There is no national security in the modern world without economic security, and both companies and private citizens should also realize the depth of the problem," she added.

Charlie Miller underlined that cyberwar is far easier than a conventional attack.  He is a security expert who launches test assaults on IT systems.

"It would take two years and cost less than 50 million dollars a year to prepare a cyberattack that could paralyze the United States," Miller warned.

He added that such an attack could involve fewer than 600 hackers.

Estonia is home to a unit known in NATO jargon as the Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence.

Estonia learned from experience about cyberattacks.  It is one of the world's most wired nations and a NATO member since 2004.

The Baltic state of 1.3 million people suffered an assault in 2007 that paralyzed key business and government web services for days.

It came as Estonian authorities shifted a Soviet-era war memorial from central Tallinn to a cemetery site.

The monument became a flashpoint following independence in 1991 for rallies by Estonia's ethnic-Russian minority.

Estonia said the cyberattacks were traced to Russian official servers.

Russia denied the involvement.

British defense ministry expert Gloria Craig said that despite Estonia's experience, people elsewhere have not woken up.

"It's still hard to convince the public that a cyberattack is an attack, when people don't see a smoking gun," Craig told AFP news.

"As of now NATO is not prepared for a global cyberattack," she added.

However, U.S. specialist Bruce Schneier said the current threat should not be overplayed.

"Building tanks does not mean you fear you could be overrun by a military force right now. It pays to build tanks and it pays to prepare for cyberwar, but I don't believe that's a fear we should worry about right now," Schneier told AFP.

"It's very easy to invent scare scenarios but this does not mean we should actually be scared by them," he said.

However, Schneier said that its time to prepare now so that sci-fi style scenarios will never become reality.