10/13/2009
10:17 PM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
Commentary

RAND: U.S. Should Not Prioritize Cyberwarfare

The think tank RAND came out with an Air Force funded paper that concludes spending money on operational cyberwarfare is a waste of budget. I agree.



The think tank RAND came out with an Air Force funded paper that concludes spending money on operational cyberwarfare is a waste of budget. I agree.InformationWeek's J. Nicholas Hoover covered the report in his story, Cyberwar Readiness Recast As Low Priority:

"Operational cyber war has an important niche role, but only that," the report (.pdf) states.

At best, cyberwarfare operations "can confuse and frustrate operators of military systems, and then only temporarily," the report notes. "The salient characteristics of cyberattacks--temporary effects and the way attacks impel countermeasures--suggest that they be used sparingly and precisely. Attempting a cyberattack in the hopes that success will facilitate a combat operation may be prudent; betting the operation's success on a particular set of results may not be."

I've always considered cyberwar attacks (I'm taking state-backed attacks here, not so much of the rogue nonsense that passes for "cyberwar") to be incremental to physical confrontation: knock out a nation's communications abilities, blind their radar, choke their access to the Internet. Most all of these objectives are best, and most swiftly met, by dropping old fashioned bombs. Also, and this is no small point, the means and methods of cyberwar are already well known and well understood: denial-of-service attacks, breaking crypto, sniffing network traffic, unleashing malware to run wild and disrupt systems, corrupting data, and so on. Military toolsets will be little more than variants on what is already rapidly available on the Internet.

As a nation, we will be better served by getting our act together with a real, substantive strategy to secure the critical infrastructure we so essentially rely: the power grid, financial systems, communications, transportation, and other critical infrastructures.

Unfortunately, such efforts have languished (May 29, 2009: Cybersecurity Review Finds U.S. Networks 'Not Secure') for far too long (September 16, 2002: The Right Balance).

My friend Dr. Christophe Veltsos, in his Dr. InfoSec blog culled a salient quote from the report that speaks directly to my opinion:

Cyberspace is its own medium with its own rules. Cyberattacks, for instance, are enabled not through the generation of force but by the exploitation of the enemy's vulnerabilities. Permanent effects are hard to produce. The medium is fraught with ambiguities about who attacked and why, about what they achieved and whether they can do so again. Something that works today may not work tomorrow (indeed, precisely because it did work today). Thus, deterrence and warfighting tenets established in other media do not necessarily translate reliably into cyberspace. Such tenets must be rethought.

The second part of the quote, as anyone who tracks IT security knows, is all too true. It's difficult to determine the actual source of attack, as attackers are prone to launch their attacks from systems the U.S. Government will never be able to analyze. Why attack from your home country when you can infiltrate systems in China, Russia, Iran to launch your attack? Also, vulnerabilities and exploits in applications and operating systems that work today, may not work tomorrow: upgrades, patches, or completely changing the system will require an over-haul of the attacker's toolbox.

So it's the first part of the quote where we should focus, as a nation, our efforts. That's shoring the vulnerabilities in our critical national IT infrastructure -- power, financial networks, transportation systems, communications -- so that they are resilient from attack.

It's not too much to expect from our government, is it? That it ensures we've built a strong house before we start planning how to knock down those of others?

 

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