Governments should fear 'blended threats'

In view what has been called the "cyber-warfare" dimension to the Russia-Georgia conflict, and the reported Chinese cyber-espionage ongoing against the west...

In view what has been called the "cyber-warfare" dimension to the Russia-Georgia conflict, and the reported Chinese cyber-espionage ongoing against the west since c.2003 ('Titan Rain', and so on), how concerned should we in the UK be about state-sponsored hacking?

Recent events in Georgia illustrate the increasing role of cyber-attacks and no country should be complacent about its possible impact. What happens in other countries can have a ripple effect and result in "collateral damage" for the rest of the world, especially those doing business with the country under attack. For example, bringing down the internet or hacking into remote systems means that communications and business with that region are adversely affected and security may be compromised.

It is very likely that some of this new "cyber-warfare" and "cyber-espionage" is state sponsored but there is also the emerging hacktivist community. These groups are intent on doing damage that their governments could prevent but in many cases choose to ignore, which results in these criminals acting with impunity. Although simply defacing or shutting down websites and spreading propaganda is bad enough there is an increasingly sinister element to this hacktivist activity.

What many of us call "Blended Threats", which combine physical and electronic attacks, may become a problem in the future. If IT systems are disrupted at the same time a physical terrorist attack takes place, recovery could be more difficult for governments and their defence and emergency services. This not only compounds the impact of the event but once the integrity of essential data is compromised it becomes unreliable and creates a loss of trust and confidence in the authorities and their IT support systems.

Countries heavily dependent on IT need to be increasingly aware of these new risks, ranging from Denial of Service attacks to hacking and ID theft. Organised groups, whether state sponsored or otherwise, will always look for vulnerabilities and may already be planting the cyber equivalent of "sleeper cells" to activate at the appropriate time.

Governments must develop strategies and take proactive measures to minimise the risk and impact and build their ability to respond and recover as quickly as possible from such attacks.

This was last published in September 2008

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