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Cyber Threat Resembles Pre-9/11 Terror Threat: Black Hat

Government leaders don't understand the gravity of the threat of cyber attacks or the implications, ex-CIA official tells Black Hat attendees.

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Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters
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Slideshow: Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters
Today's threat of cyber attacks is analogous to that from terrorists in the mid-1990s, Cofer Black, chairman of Total Intelligence Solutions and director of the CIA's counterterrorist center on 9/11, said in a keynote at Black Hat, a UBM TechWeb event, on Wednesday.

When al Qaeda was in the rise in the mid-1990s, and even until the 9/11 attacks, Black said, terrorist threats were not well understood and were new to the country's top decision makers. "They didn't understand it. They had no personal experience with it," he said. "The decision-makers of today are in the same boat [with cyber]. They hear it, but they don't understand it."

In the future, Black said, cyber will be a key component of all conflicts. He said that, until recently, the security world has considered the key threats for causing mass destruction to be chemical, bacteriological, radiological, or nuclear, but that cyber has to be a part of the mix from now on.

"I am here to tell you, and you can quote me on this: The Stuxnet attack is the Rubicon of our future," he said. "It was really expensive, so a nation-state had to be involved. Second, [the world of cyber] has now morphed into physical destruction of national resources. This is huge."

The challenges such attacks present are huge, Black said, pointing to questions about how to respond to cyber attacks on physical infrastructure, and noting that the Department of Defense recently said that they could carry out physical counter-strikes in respond to cyber attacks on physical infrastructure.

Another analogy with terrorist attacks, and another challenge of responding to cyber attacks, Black noted, was the difficulty of attribution. "In my world, the concept is false flags, that everybody wants to look like they're somebody else, like Iran, who has surrogate groups," he says. "That's where you are, too, and it is fraught with danger because it's an emotional time, but confusion comes up in the normal course."

The vendors, contractors, and other outside parties with which you do business can create a serious security risk. Here's how to keep this threat in check. Also in the new, all-digital issue of Dark Reading: Why focusing solely on your own company's security ignores the bigger picture. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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