Saturday, October 12, 2013

Are Cyber Barbarians at Our Gates?

By James McFarlin
from New York City

Continually puzzled by why America’s cyber defenses do such an inadequate job of actually defending, I journeyed to Manhattan this past weekend to hear what a select gathering of global cybersecurity experts had to say on the subject.

With my mind spinning two days later from complex chart images, PowerPoint bullets and spirited discussions, I said my goodbyes and made my way to the elevator. It was only once I was in the taxi to midtown, mind roaming free, that the collective impact of the discussions began to synthesize and take form.

That’s when a sense of dark foreboding began to sweep over me. Here’s why.

  • Cyberattack? What’s that?
    How do we define a cyberattack? Is it any breach of a network? A disruption of operations? Must human casualties be involved? Opinions ran the gamut of circumstances, ending without consensus or even a general framework of agreement. The analogy that came to mind was the story of the blind men describing the elephant.
    To our point: If cyberattacks cannot be clearly defined, how can dangers be prioritized so that defenses can be deployed accordingly?

  • Regional conflicts are exporting wars to the US.
    The Syrian Electronic Army disrupted American media outlets in response to potential US interdiction in Syria. Meanwhile, Iranian strikes took aim at US banking networks in retaliation for US-sponsored economic sanctions. Both are recent examples of cyber conflict triggered by events in the kinetic or physical world of warfare.
    With events in the Middle East increasingly boiling over, such retaliatory attacks against America – most of which we will have no defense for – will only continue to rise.

  • Global cyber militias are proliferating. “Hacking for hire” mercenary groups based in Eastern Europe, China, and many other regions are on the ascent. One presentation provided an overview of threats from the top 50 such groups around the globe. These militias take on specific attacks according to their specialty, and they're available for booking directly over the Internet. 

Cyber defense is clearly an emerging discipline in its infancy. The question is: When will the capabilities of such defenses begin to even closely match the rapidly evolving cyber threats that make them necessary?

While we wait, these increasingly dangerous cyberattacks will continue their assault.

The cyber barbarians are not just at the gates. They have busted their way through – and we are woefully defenseless.


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FIRST LOOK: Are we heading toward segmentation of the Internet? What are the implications for cybersecurity? See my analysis in an upcoming post.

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(Featured image: Alejandro De La Espriella/Wikimedia Commons)

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