By Robert Vamosi
He was heckled, often dismissed. It wasn't until the eve of the German attack in 1940 that the British government belatedly accepted the seriousness of the German threat and rallied its defenses.
In his keynote address at the recent Black Hat USA 2002 security conference in Las Vegas, White House presidential cybersecurity adviser Richard Clarke summoned up the ghost of Winston Churchill when he asked why the United States rallied its defenses after Pearl Harbor and after September 11, but not before.
He further asked those in the room to warn others of the coming cyberwar--an attack on the U.S. government's information infrastructure--by becoming "little Winston Churchills."
Situation is not parallel
But is the current situation in cyberspace analogous to that of pre-World War II Europe? Not really. And the desensitization brought on by repeated warnings from Clarke and others could do more to harm national security than to protect it.
Clarke is not alone. At this year's E-Gov 2002 conference in Washington, D.C., the Business Software Alliance (BSA) released a survey of 395 IT professionals conducted in June. Roughly half of the respondents who are responsible for their company's Internet security think the U.S. government will be attacked in the next 12 months. And 55 percent of those surveyed think that the risk of attack has increased since September 11, 2001.
What is a cyberwar, anyway?
The first thought that comes to my mind when people mention cyberwar is: what kind of attack are they really talking about? We've seen Web page defacements traded between Palestinian and Israeli cyberactivists. The Yaha worm, thought to have originated in India, recently caused a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on the Pakistani government's main Web site. In the grand scheme of things, however, these are relatively minor inconveniences compared with a major military ground or air attack.
A more devastating scenario might be for malicious users to target a critical infrastructure system. By disrupting, say, a network regulating a power grid, one could disrupt companies' ability to conduct business, as well as the daily lives of ordinary citizens. But that's still not the sort of devastation one associates with an all-out war.
No one has ever made it clear to me exactly what a cyberwar would entail--and I'm betting I'm not the only one who's confused here. I'm not even sure how we'd determine whether any given hacking incident marked the beginning of a sustained conflict.
So who is the enemy?
Another question I have: who would start such a cyberwar? There are reports of Al-Qaeda agents having an interest in infrastructure systems, but anyone can bookmark technical Web pages in a browser; that doesn't mean they know how to attack these systems. And the CIA has warned about the increasing technological sophistication of the Chinese military without any evidence of malicious intent.
But I don't buy that foreign countries are focusing on cyberattacks. It seems to me that a domestic user with a strong political agenda would be a more likely candidate to start a conflict than a hostile foreign government.
Clarke, who has years of security experience on his resume, is a knowledgeable public servant and a welcome change from a government that didn't really understand the Y2K problem three years ago. But if he keeps crying wolf about a cyberwar, it could dull public reaction to credible cybersecurity threats.
At least Churchill offered specifics. He cited the increasing numbers of Luftwaffe planes to back up his prophetic warnings. At present, Clarke and others can't even say who might attack or what such an attack might look like.
Until Clarke or someone else answers these questions--and supports their claims with hard evidence--I'm not going to be up nights worrying about a cyberwar against the United States.
Senior Associate Editor Robert Vamosi covers hoaxes, viruses, and security threats for CNET Reviews. Have a question for him? Let him know!