CIA official warns US Congress of cyberattack danger

US businesses will 'increasingly become the point of attack for enemies of [the] United States' by hackers and national governments using sophisticated weapons such as worms and viruses that can be used for precise attacks, warns a top US CIA official.

          US businesses will "increasingly become the point of attack for enemies of [the] United States" by hackers and national governments using sophisticated weapons such as worms and viruses that can be used for precise attacks, warned a top US Central Intelligence Agency official in testimony last Thursday before a US congressional committee.

          Lawrence Gershwin, national intelligence officer at the CIA, says US companies face a range of threats posed by the growing use of foreign contractors, increased reliance on commercial software with known vulnerabilities in critical networks and sophisticated, state-sponsored cyberattack programs.

          Defenders in government and business "will be at some disadvantage until more fundamental changes are made to computer and network architectures -- changes for which improved security has equal billing with increased functionality," said Gershwin before the Joint Economic Committee.

          Gershwin's testimony broke no new ground in categorising the threats and risks that exist to US businesses. Intelligence and information security experts have echoed similar concerns for some time. But this hearing, organised by US Senator Robert Bennett (Republican-Utah), was intended to underscore the need for legislative remedies.

          Bennett soon plans to introduce legislation exempting cybersecurity data from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disclosure requirements. Private-sector trade groups argue that the FOIA exemption will allow companies to share data with government agencies without risk of public disclosure.

          "There are significant real and perceived barriers to information sharing and vulnerability assessments," says Peggy Lipps, the security director at the Banking Industry Technology Secretariat (BITS) in Washington.

          Duane Andrews, a former assistant secretary of defense during the previous Bush administration and an executive vice president at San Diego-based Science Applications International, pointedly told the committee that the US is losing ground in protecting its systems. "The rate of progress has been slower than the growth of the potential threat," he says, blaming that disparity on a "failure to act."

          "For a decade, we have had study after study and report after report pointing out that our economy and national security is at risk," says Andrews. But companies and government agencies aren't taking precautionary steps for a number of reasons, including the following:

          • Policy makers don't understand the threats.
          • Investments in cybersecurity measures interfere with business function.
          • No oversight agency holds government and critical business functions accountable.
          • The issue is treated as a tactical problem, not a strategic one.
          The threats vary, Gershwin says . Terrorist groups pose only a limited cyberthreat because they believe that "bombs still work better than bytes." But that attitude is expected to change as younger, computer-savvy budding terrorists rise in organisational ranks, he says.

          The use of subcontractors hired by foreign partners creates "virtual" insiders whose identity and nationality are often unknown to US firms, he says. "As part of an unprecedented churning of the global information technology workforce, US firms are drawing on pools of computer expertise that reside in a number of potential threat countries," Gershwin says.

          Although hackers lack the "requisite tradecraft" to threaten critical networks, the large worldwide population of hackers "poses a relatively high threat of an isolated or brief disruption causing serious damage," he adds.

          The greatest threat comes from other governments. "For the next five to 10 years or so, only nation states appear to have the discipline, commitment and resources to fully develop capabilities to attack critical infrastructures," says Gershwin.

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