World Review | The US ups investment in cyber security to halt hackers

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The US ups investment in cyber security to halt hackers

The US ups investment in cyber security to halt hackers
Cyber attacks are hitting government and industry in the West (photo:dpa)

UNITED States defence programmes are facing sharp cuts to their budgets, but one exception is cyber security. The personnel of the Pentagon’s Cyber Command is being increased five-fold, from 900 to 4,900 people. This is a measure of how seriously the administration now views these threats.

The US Defence Department is also investing more than US$3 billion in security to boost its ability to counter cyber threats.

The number of organisations believed to have been hacked in the US has risen nine-fold in six years, from 5,500 in 2006 to 48,500 in 2012, according to the US Government Accountability Office.

President Barack Obama added his weight to US warnings over increasing threats from cyber space: ‘We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.’

America’s national intelligence director, James R. Clapper said such attacks, although they might not happen in the next two years, were the ‘most immediate threat to the United States. For the first time, he listed them ahead of international terrorism in the catalogue of dangers.

International security experts believe the most advanced cyber attack so far carried out globally was by the US government, using the Stuxnet virus against Iran in 2010. The virus, developed by the Americans and the Israelis, was aimed at crippling Iran’s nuclear programme.

But the US is itself extremely vulnerable to cyber attacks because it is so reliant on information technology.

A US congressional report in 2012 named China as ‘the most threatening actor in cyberspace’.

A US congressional intelligence committee named two Chinese telecommunication companies, Huawei and ZTE, as a threat to US national security.

It said their networks in the US could be switched on remotely to send sensitive data back to China, allowing the Chinese government to intercept communications and start online attacks on critical US infrastructures, such as power grids and water dams.

Western governments have never revealed what evidence they have on cyber attacks.

But a report in January 2013 by the American cyber security firm, Mandiant, detailed what it said was the involvement of China’s People’s Liberation Army in cyber industrial espionage, with a hitherto unknown amount of digital evidence.

The report has put the Obama administration under pressure to take action against China.

China is also suspected of hacking into the computer systems of the US information technology company, Telvent, which monitors more than half the oil and gas pipelines, other utilities and water treatment plants in North America.

Cyber attacks and intrusions into critical energy infrastructures increased ‘at an alarming rate’ in 2012 - up 52 per cent more than 2011, according to a US government report in January 2013.

But there are fears that cyber weapons will be used by an increasing number of countries and others as a form of asymmetric warfare option, in which attackers are increasingly gaining the advantage.

Between 20 and 30 states have the capability to launch cyber warfare, according to the former US anti-terrorism advisor, Richard Clarke. These include the USA, China and Russia, some smaller states and numerous medium-sized powers, including Iran and North Korea.

Groups of Israeli and Arab hackers have escalated their cyber attacks and ‘retaliatory strikes’ since 2011 as part of the political conflict between the two sides.

But the US Chamber of Commerce and some other institutions have been lobbying against the imposition of measures by the US government. They say these could prove too costly to business.

But the US government says the first line of defence to avert catastrophic attacks would be to force industry to build robust defences.

Dr Frank Umbach

Dr Frank Umbach is a Senior Associate and Head of the Programme 'International Energy Security' at the Centre for European Security Strategies (CESS) GmbH, Munich-Berlin and Associate Direct ...

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