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Security expert: US would lose cyberwar

'We'll wave our hands but won't mitigate this risk'

The US government, if confronted in a cyberwar today, would not come out on top, a former US director of national intelligence said yesterday.

"If the nation went to war today, in a cyberwar, we would lose," Mike McConnell told a US Senate committee. "We're the most vulnerable. We're the most connected. We have the most to lose."

McConnell, director of national intelligence from 2007 to 2009, predicted that the US government would eventually get heavily involved in protecting cybersecurity and in regulating private approaches to cybersecurity. Testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, McConnell also predicted that the US would make little improvements in its cybersecurity before a "catastrophic" attack will cause the government to get involved.

"We will not mitigate this risk," said McConnell, now executive vice-president for the national security business at Booz Allen Hamilton. "We will talk about it, we will wave our hands, we'll have a bill, but we will not mitigate this risk."

After a major attack, the government will step in to secure the internet, McConnell predicted. "We're going to morph the Internet from something that's referred to generally as dot-com to something that we call dot-secure," he said. "When [online] transactions move billions of dollars, or when transactions route trains up and down the East Coast or control electric power... the basic attributes of security must be endorsed."

'Give the market a kick'

Government intervention is needed, added James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington DC think tank. Private-sector fixes to the nation's cybersecurity problems haven't been effective, he said.

The internet was designed as a global commons that polices itself, but that model has failed, Lewis added. "Instead, we've got the Wild West," he said. "Many will say we should let the market fix cybersecurity. I'm familiar with this one, because I, myself, wrote it in 1996, and I'm still waiting. Government needs to give the market a kick."

Early last year, Senators Jay Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe introduced a bill that would create new cybersecurity regulations for private companies designated as critical infrastructure. The senators have rewritten the Cybersecurity Act several times after complaints from the private sector, but the bill would also require a national licensing and certification program for cybersecurity professionals. Under the bill, it would be illegal to provide some cybersecurity services without being licensed and certified.

Some versions of the bill would have also allowed the US president to order that parts of the internet under attack be shut down.

Rethinking security

Lewis praised the bill, saying it provides a "broad rethinking" of the nation's approach to cybersecurity.

Rockefeller, the committee chairman, said cyberattacks are happening too often and are "sucking the blood" out of the US economy. The US government needs "strong top-level co-ordination" to protect cybersecurity, he said.

"Too much is at stake for us to pretend that today's outdated cybersecurity policies are up to the task of protecting our nation and economic infrastructure," he said. "We have heard the reassurances and seen the best efforts of many in the private sector working to secure their networks. But it is clear that even the largest, most sophisticated companies are not immune from attack."

While new regulations might help in some areas, US technology users and policymakers need to stop tying more and more systems to the internet, said Mary Ann Davidson, chief security officer at Oracle.

"In the many discussions on what the government can do to fix cybersecurity... it is worth noting that no single proposal will save us, and certainly not any time soon," she said. "There is, however, one thing we can do today: stop making cybersecurity worse by rushing to use technology in ways we know very well we cannot secure."

Davidson said she worries about when the US electrical system is fully controlled through the internet and when people working with SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems fully embrace their ability to turn the systems on and off through a smartphone.

"We know that people have built personal digital assistants that 'talk SCADA' because 'it's so expensive to send a technician to the plant,'" she said. "It won't be long before we hear: 'Move the control rods in and out of the reactor? There's an app for that!'

"Some day we may have a power plant meltdown when all someone was trying to do is answer the phone," she added.

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