06:19 PM

Is Government Inflating Cyber Threats?

A report from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University questions "alarmist rhetoric" and asks whether government agencies can meaningfully improve the security of critical infrastructure.

Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters
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Slideshow: Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters
The "alarmist rhetoric" surrounding the potential for "catastrophic cyber threats" has strong parallels with the inflated threats used to justify the lead-in to the Iraq War.

That assertion comes from "Loving The Cyber Bomb?" a report released on Wednesday by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a nonprofit think tank that promotes free-market and deregulation policies.

In particular, the report draws parallels between the justifications for the Iraq War--links between al Queda and Saddam Hussein's government, as well as its being on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons--and the current rationale for greater government involvement in private-sector security, which is that a major critical infrastructure attack could bring the United States to its knees.

But while Iraq had backed terrorists and possessed chemical and biological "weapons of mass destruction," there was never any verifiable evidence to support the more serious claims. Likewise, there's no doubt that cybercrime is rampant and denial of service attacks on the rise. Legislators and bureaucrats, however, continue to warn of an imminent, catastrophic attack against the country's critical infrastructure.

For example, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano delivered a speech on Monday at the University of California at Berkeley College, calling for cyber security to be a shared responsibility, and to make her case, opened the speech by linking terrorism and cyber attacks. Only, terrorists aren't launching online attacks. "There's zero evidence that cyber is really a tool for terrorist attack. That's the sort of rhetoric that I'd like to see people be more careful about," said report co-author Jerry Brito, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, in a phone interview.

What are the real dangers? His report warns that overinflating the potential fallout of an online attack could lead to unnecessary regulation of the Internet. It also cautions against "unwarranted external influence"--aka defense contractors--which "can lead to unnecessary federal spending." Finally, it offers a framework for rationally assessing existing online threats.

"I'm not suggesting the government should have no role in cyber security infrastructure, but we have to ask ourselves, when should the government have a role, and what should that role be?" said Brito.

Currently, the government position is that it should lead the cybersecurity charge. "So now you may be asking, how do you secure a distributed, decentralized, and fundamentally civilian space that is largely privately owned, straddles international boundaries, and has both virtual and physical elements?" said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in her speech on Monday. Her answer was that DHS has two missions: to protect non-military--aka dot-gov--federal agencies, as well as "leading the protection of critical infrastructure and its connections to cyberspace."

Not so fast, said Brito. There may be a case for the government to get involved, should the private sector need incentives for improving its security posture. "But we haven't heard that argument. What we've heard is, 'We're the government, we have to secure the critical infrastructure,'" he said. "Wait, stop, we haven't had the analysis yet--point me to the critical infrastructure you want to regulate, and tell me why they don't have the incentive to provide security themselves."

Furthermore, even for industries that lack such incentives--for example, many utilities, which operate as monopolies--"how is government going to do any better?" he asked. "It's just assumed that government is going to come in, and it will all be secure. And I'm not sure why we think that DHS will do better."

In her speech, Napolitano also argues for more government partnerships with the private companies that overwhelmingly control critical infrastructure industries. But government agencies have been arguing for public-private partnerships relationships ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, almost 10 years ago. "Maybe tells you what the private sector thinks about partnerships," said Brito.

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