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Experts: Few cyberattacks are cause for major retaliation

Grant Gross | June 8, 2011
Cyberattacks on U.S. networks by other nations may not always demand the same level of retaliation, and only attacks that cause major damage or loss of life should prompt similar responses, a group of national security experts said Wednesday.

Cyberattacks on U.S. networks by other nations may not always demand the same level of retaliation, and only attacks that cause major damage or loss of life should prompt similar responses, a group of national security experts said Wednesday.

Cyberattacks on private companies and even on the U.S. Department of Defense's network are commonplace and part of a long history of international espionage that the U.S. and other countries have engaged in for years, said some panelists speaking at a cyberwar discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Presented with a scenario similar to a computer compromise at RSA Security, in which the attackers also targeted defense contractor Lockheed Martin, defense consultant Franklin Miller said people getting upset with the attack seem to assume that the U.S. doesn't engage in some of the same practices.

"This is going to happen," said Miller, former senior director for defense policy and arms control at the U.S. National Security Council. "This is what intelligence organizations do."

CSIS fellow Adriane Lapointe presented Miller and other panelists with a series of reality-based scenarios and asked them what the appropriate U.S. government response should be. The CSIS panel came just days after the U.S. Department of Defense said it was prepared to use force to respond to some cyberattacks.

In some cases, attacks that appear to be sponsored by another nation -- including attacks that Google blamed on China in early 2010 -- may prompt the U.S. to file formal complaints, the panelists said. In other cases, the U.S. may want to signal another country that it considered an attack unfair, although it may be more difficult for other countries to read cybersignals than to interpret military aircraft flying near their borders, said James Lewis, director of the CSIS Technology and Public Policy Program.

The cybersignals of displeasure can be clear, said Robert Giesler, former director of information operations and strategic studies in the DOD's Office of the Secretary of Defense. "There are ways you can noisily go about penetrating networks," he said.

In some cases, the signal may not be cyber in nature, Miller added. "You don't have to [signal] in the same medium," he said. "If you want to inflict pain ... you need to find the point of pain. It may not be in the cyberworld. It may be elsewhere."

Countries may need to negotiate rules of engagement for cyber-espionage, panelists said.

 

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