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17 January 2011, 17:09

OECD study: an actual cyberwar is improbable

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OECD Logo Conducted on behalf of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a study has found that a cyberwar conducted solely via the internet between states is very improbable. The authors believe that most crucial systems are simply too well protected. While attacks on systems such as the one involving Stuxnet can be successful, they have to be carefully targeted and limited – and the effects have to be calculated exactly.

The study finds that the term "cyberwar" is now "overhyped" as it is used for all kinds of things, including activities that used to fall under the category of espionage or sabotage. Indeed, Denial of Service (DoS) attacks related to WikiLeaks have also been called cyberwar even though they only constituted blockades.

Conducted by the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics, the study explains that cyberwar is properly understood as targeted attacks on critical infrastructures in combination with conventional attacks. And the best protection from such attacks is careful system design and setup.

The authors do, however, believe that it would be hard to take a purely military approach in protecting systems. After all, the targets are generally found in the private sector: transport, energy and water supply, and financial markets. Furthermore, the threat of counterattacks will hardly scare off attackers because it is generally hard to know who the attackers are.

The study is part of a larger OECD project entitled Future Global Shocks, which investigates the causes and effects of global catastrophes and tries to find out which events in cyberspace may have similar effects. For instance, global malfunctions could occur if certain internet protocols and systems came under attack. The BGP routing protocol is one such candidate, but phases of large solar flares could also take down communications satellites for some time.

At the beginning of 2010, experts looked into how well the US might perform in a cyberwar. It was found that belligerent powers might very well be able to sabotage the power grid during a conflict in, say, Taiwan or Georgia. At the same time, the experts believed it was unlikely that China or Russia would resort to such measures because the political risks would be too great and the attack would be tantamount to bombing a power plant, which would have severe consequences indeed. Furthermore, the belligerent power would also suffer if, for instance, Wall Street could not conduct business.


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