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24 February 2010, 14:59

US likely to lose a cyber war

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In a US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing, security experts have expressed extreme concern about US defences against cyber-attacks. Former vice-admiral and head of National Intelligence Michael McConnell even went as far as claimingPDF that the US would be on the losing side should a hostile power launch a cyber war against it. This is not, according to McConnell, because US security staff are less talented or because its technology is inferior, but rather the US is vulnerable because it is the best networked country – for which reason it also has the most to lose.

It is precisely this state of affairs which the recently passed Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2009 is intended to resolve. It aims to ensure, by means of training, research and better coordination, that the government and government agencies are better protected against attacks originating from cyberspace. The Act still has to pass through the US Senate.

James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) also emphasisedPDF US vulnerability to attacks. According to Lewis, it is known that countries such as China and Russia are already carrying out espionage to determine how they can disable the US electricity grid. He believes that they and other countries are now in a position to be able to knock out the electricity grid in the event, for example, of a conflict over Taiwan or Georgia. However he thinks that it unlikely that China or Russia would go down this route, as it would be too great a risk politically, comparable to bombing a power plant, and would trigger a vigorous US reaction. In addition, he notes, even hostile states would suffer should, for example, Wall Street be knocked out.

However Lewis plays down concerns about terrorist attacks, saying that If terrorists were really in a position to carry out cyber-attacks, they would already have done so. The belief that they are in a position to do so, but have so far held back for whatever reason is "ridiculous". Terrorists are, in his opinion, crazy people. Lewis warns that this situation could change if hostile powers were to provide terrorists with the requisite knowledge and skills. Lewis feels that at present, neither China nor Russia would cooperate with extremists.

Nonetheless, the US and the US economy is already being bled by constant small-scale cyber-attacks. According to Lewis, theft of important information and attacks by cyber-criminals are already doing immense damage to both business and government. If no action is taken, the patient will, Lewis told the hearing, eventually bleed to death – therefore he considers passage of the Act to be an urgent necessity.

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