Cyber warfare a terror to add to our neuroses

IT security experts increasingly say that the global financial system and countries' vital infrastructure are at risk from cyber criminals, but do they overstate the dangers?

Cyber warfare is now the new front in national security as attacks from organised criminals or state-sponsored entities rise.
Powered by automated translation

There is a new bogeyman, and it is called cyber warfare. Like the other threats that now routinely disrupt the rhythm of everyday life, it is real but possibly exaggerated.

Last week, we learnt that the London Stock Exchange (LSE) and the US stock exchanges have turned to the security services for help after cyberattacks that sought to wreak havoc across global financial markets. The LSE did not deny the reports but was at pains to point out that its systems were less vulnerable to attack because they were not web-based, as its US competitors' systems are.

On both sides of the Atlantic, cyber warfare is now the new front in national security. And the protection of key economic assets - whether stock exchanges or critical infrastructure such as power stations - is as urgent a priority as conventional terrorism.



In the past couple of years, the number of cyberattacks on British businesses has soared. While Iain Lobben, the director of the UK's Government Communications Headquarters, said last year that the spy communications agency had picked up 20,000 malicious e-mails a month sent to government departments. Of these, about 1,000 were targeted attacks.

In the past, many of these threats came from amateur hackers. The number of sophisticated attacks by criminal gangs or state-sponsored entities is said to be on the rise.

The US IT security giant Symantec says that because so-called attack kits, which hackers can use to get into networks, are becoming easier to use, cybercrime is no longer limited to those with advanced programming skills. Those whose expertise has been in traditional criminal activities such as, say, money laundering are also turning to cybercrime with a consequent increase in the number of attacks.

There is no doubt that malicious code attacks are profitable. A ring of cyber criminals arrested in the US last September after using the Zeus botnet, which targets small businesses, had stolen more than US$70 million (Dh257.1m) from online banking and trading accounts in 18 months.

But this is more than just an economic crime, as the involvement of the intelligence services on both sides of the Atlantic shows.

According to the The Times of London, the US intelligence services have traced the source of one cyberattack on a US stock exchange to Russia.

That fits with a parliamentary report in the UK last year that said states such as Russia and China posed the greatest threat of electronic attack on the UK.

In the weeks before Russia's military invasion of Georgia in 2008, computer viruses attacked Georgian websites.

Google claimed last year that China tried to hack into Gmail.

And a security report for the US Congress, published in November, claimed that a state-owned Chinese telecommunications company hijacked almost 15 per cent of all web traffic through its own servers on April 8.

It was suggested that China might have re-routed traffic to harvest sensitive information from e-mails or to test a cyber weapon developed to disrupt internet traffic from foreign servers. The Chinese have denied this.

So in this supposedly new war, the West has found two old enemies.

That is depressingly predictable. Military and intelligence heads now seem to be working with the corporate sector to inflate the cyber warfare bogeyman.

But just last month the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said that "very few single cyber-related events have the capacity to cause a global shock". Yet, the authors argued, there was still a high and growing risk of "localised misery" caused by cyber attacks.

Whom should we believe? Whoever turns out to be right, playing the China and Russian cards certainly feeds into present day neuroses. Now there is a new reason to fear the East.