Computer-based attacks emerge as threat of future, general says

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The four-star general said estimates of the value of lost corporate and government information range as high as $1 trillion. In one recent case, a U.S. corporation that he did not identify by name lost $1 billion worth of proprietary technology that was “stolen by the adversaries.” The technology took the company more than 20 years to develop.

The problem is “on a massive scale that affects every industry and every sector of the economy and government, and it’s one that we have to get out in front of,” he said.

Recent attacks on corporate computer networks include Sony’s system that affected 7.7 million video users in April and a second incident affecting 2.5 million users in May. Google, defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and the security company RSA also were targets of sophisticated computer attacks.

In May 2007, computer networks in Estonia were disabled by computer operatives from neighboring Russia.

“They had to disconnect their international connections to stop these attacks after several days. It was huge and greatly impacted Estonia,” Gen. Alexander said.

Asked about conducting offensive operations, Gen. Alexander said that current cyberdefenses are “far from adequate” and that more needs to be done before adopting more offensive tools.

“In cyber, we have not solved the defensive portion,” he said. “From my perspective, there is a lot that we can do to fix that before we take offensive actions.”

Response actions to cyber-attacks need to be carefully measured to avoid escalating from a conflict in the cyber-arena to full-scale conventional warfare, he said.

One example would be to “take down ‘botnets’” — malicious computer software packages — from the Internet.

Gen. Alexander defended the U.S. government practice of not identifying major cyberthreats such as those emanating from China and Russia.

Confronting foreign government complicates efforts to track cyber-activity, he said.

“Candidly, if every time we say, ‘We know you’re doing A,’ they say, ‘Oh, you can see that?’ We don’t see it anymore. We don’t see them for a while.”

The foreign governments also seek to learn information about U.S. tracking capability and, when confronted, “all they do is deny it,” he said.

Gen. Alexander warned that cyberwarfare is expected to continue and that defenses need to be improved. “Whether or not we do that, it’s coming,” he said. “It’s a question of time. People say, ‘Aw that’s five years out, it’s two years out.’

“What we don’t know is how far out it is, an attack in cyberspace, and what that will be? Will it be against commercial infrastructure, government networks? Will it be against platforms? We don’t know.”

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

Mr. ...

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