World needs to understand cyber threat, say Leon Panetta

The world needs to understand that cyber threat is really about crippling attack, says former US secretary of state Leon Panetta

The world needs to understand that the cyber threat is really about a crippling attack, says Leon Panetta, former US secretary of state and director of the CIA.

“There is a strong need for greater partnership between the private sector and the government and military to share information,” Leon Panetta told the McAfee Focus 2013 conference in Las Vegas.

Panetta also called for greater government investment in cyber technologies and capabilities. “They need to attract, train and retain people for cyber defence,” he said.

Panetta expressed particular concern about the defence of critical national infrastructure. “We know adversaries are probing related networks, which are mostly in private hands,” he said.

“Just as Hurricane Sandy paralysed the US east coast in 2012, a massive cyber attack could paralyse a country by taking down power, water and transport systems,” Panetta said.

Referring to a speech he made in October 2012 in New York – in which he talked about a “cyber Pearl Harbour” – Panetta said he really believed it was a possibility.

“I have seen the brightest people working on powerful viruses and, if we are working on that kind of thing to defend ourselves, it is likely our adversaries are too,” Panetta said.

In a highly political speech, he said it bodes ill that cyber threats have reached such a high level at the same time the US is facing record debt and political gridlock.

Returning to the theme of public-private partnership, he said: “Cyberspace is the future but, if it is to produce prosperity, we have all got to work together to secure it.”

Panetta likened the cyber threat to the nuclear threat, saying it requires a similar response. “When nuclear power became a reality, countries came together to protect against nuclear proliferation and set rules. We need to do the same on cyber,” he said.

Collaboration between corporations is also vital to building better smarter defences, but businesses are nervous about sharing information, he said.

“I believe if governments legislate to protect companies from legal liabilities, business will establish standards on a voluntary basis,” said Panetta.

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