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[] Stratfor 17.8.01: The prospects for cyber war exaggerated,

The prospects for cyber war
Critical information systems surprisingly difficult to penetrate

Since mid-July, up to seven strains of the Code Red computer worm have infected nearly 1 million computers worldwide. Though government agencies and corporations have fought the virus with software patches, media attention has heightened fears in both the public and private sectors about cyber weapons that can potentially inflict strategic damage. 

Cyber attacks launched over the Internet will continue to irritate government and commercial entities. But determined attacks targeting the critical, highly-protected government and commercial information systems that are not connected to the Internet, such as sensitive military, banking and electric power systems, are unlikely in the near term. Cyber war will evolve in much the same way as traditional warfare: Well-financed adversaries will steadily sharpen their battle plans to defeat increasingly complicated and effective countermeasures. 

The "electronic Pearl Harbor" that experts have warned is on the horizon for wired nations such as the United States will become harder ­ not easier ­ to pull off. Nations and terrorist groups will need to invest increasing funds and manpower in cyber weapons to overcome parallel attempts to defend critical networks. Computers designed to oversee vital operations are unique and highly complex, and so must be the cyber weapons that strike them. Cyber warriors will probably be forced to develop computer weapons designed for a single target ­ like shooting each individual combatant on a battlefield with a tailor-made bullet. More nations are seeking ways to cooperate in order to combat the rising number of terror attacks around the globe. As a greater number of countries find themselves in the crosshairs of diverse and increasingly independent international terrorist groups, the community of nations is entering a new stage in security cooperation. 

During the current scare, media attention quickly focused on the Code Red worm, which has disrupted e-mail and a number of websites, including the White House home page and networks running Microsoft Windows NT and Microsoft 2000. 

New and potentially more damaging generations of the worm leave a "back door" that hackers can use to take over infected computers. Code Red has caused more than $2 billion in economic losses worldwide, according to the publication Computer Economics, but experts do not believe it is the work of a single group of terrorists or country. 

Internet attacks such as Code Red do not constitute cyber war. They are perpetrated by hackers or "hacktivists" seeking to make their mark or, as in recent Chinese hacker attacks, which were a political statement. These Internet-based attacks, though costly and time-consuming for computer security specialists, do not pose a major threat to the health of wired economies or militaries. 

The very nature of mass viruses makes them unsuited for warfare. Although numerous, Internet-based attacks are random and often cause only isolated or brief disruptions that software can quickly remedy. An Internet virus that spreads vigorously does so only because it causes limited damage to a computer. It can't spread far if it "kills" the targeted computer. 

Denial-of-service attacks, in which many messages are pumped to a single site to overload it and shut it down, are equally self-limiting. The attacks often shut down the computer quickly, preventing the virus from spreading. 

Internet-based attacks also inflict relatively little economic harm. According to the World Bank, global gross domestic product is about $30 trillion, while electronic commerce, including business-to-business transactions, only recently hit the $1 trillion mark. Moreover, the top 10 commercial websites account for more than half of all electronic commerce, according to the Boston Consulting Group. And while Code Red-like viruses and worms will continue to evolve and become more damaging, government and corporations will also become more security savvy. 

Nevertheless, the unique characteristics of cyber war will give rise to a new type of battlefield over time. The true threat of cyber war comes from countries and groups developing weapons to target discrete, highly critical computer operations, including sensitive military and government networks, electric power grids, air-traffic control operations, telecommunications and financial institutions. 

Cyber weaponry offers particularly compelling benefits for developing countries, among others. According to a March 2001 report by the U.S. Department of Defense, those benefits include the low cost of the technology, the difficulty in distinguishing between foreign and domestic intrusions, the fact that traditional intelligence-gathering methods are of limited use to countries seeking to defend themselves, and the technology's virtually unlimited range: a cyber attack can be launched from anywhere at any time. 

According to U.S. intelligence estimates, only nation-states at this time are capable of attacking critical targets, and even they are fighting an uphill battle. During the next five to 10 years, terrorist organizations and organized crime groups will have only limited capabilities to attack big targets. For terrorists, "bombs still work better than bytes," CIA science and technology expert Lawrence Gershwin told the U.S. Congress in June. 

Meanwhile, credit card recognition software and other tools sought by organized crime groups have also failed to materialize as quickly as some estimates suggested. The CIA describes industrial spies and organized crime syndicates as posing a "medium" threat in the near term while terrorists pose only a "limited" threat. 

The development of effective cyber weapons by nation-states will likewise take considerable time and effort: The more critical the target, the more difficult it will be to develop a sophisticated method of attack. "Globally available tools are particularly effective against the mechanisms of the Internet, but specialized tools would be needed against more difficult targets, such as many of the networks that control critical infrastructures," Gershwin testified. 

"Considerable tradecraft also is required," he added. "Attackers must tailor strategies to specific target-networks, requiring advanced and continued reconnaissance to characterize targets." 

Ultimately, the threat of an impending "doomsday click" ­ in which highly sensitive computer operations are attacked, endangering lives and a country's economic health ­ remains premature. 

"If you're serious about cyber warfare, you're not spending time putting out worms and viruses," said Desmond Ball, an electronic warfare and intelligence specialist at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center told the Far Eastern Economic Review in August. "Don't expect the true cyber warriors to be showing the strength of their hand just yet." 

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