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Study of Russia-Georgia Cyber Conflict Brings Warnings To U.S. Businesses, Citizens

Companies, end users could easily be swept up in politically-motivated attacks, researchers say
A year-long study of the cyberwar between Russia and Georgia is being published this week, along with some dire warnings to U.S. businesses and individuals.

The detailed study, which was prepared by the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit (US-CCU), was distributed as a classified document to government and military organizations earlier this month. However, a nine-page summary of its high-level conclusions was made available to the press over the weekend.

The summary outlines the details of the cyber conflict between Russia and Georgia, and offers some conclusions about future cyber warfare. But John Bumgarner, CTO of the US-CCU and one of the authors of the report, says there is an even more important subtext to the findings.

"Any corporation -- any citizen -- can become a pawn in a global cyberwar," Bumgarner says. "This is not a problem that's limited only to governments or the military."

The Russia-Georgia conflict ripped away the traditional lines between military forces, government agencies, and private citizens, the report states. Most of the attacks on Georgia's Websites and computer systems were launched by private citizens -- and even Russian organized crime -- who were recruited over social networks. The attackers may have had the support of the Russian government, getting tips as to the timing of military operations, but no specific orders were issued publicly.

"This changes the way battle lines are drawn," Bumgarner says. "How do you deal with private citizens who become cyber warriors? There are no treaties or international laws that address this."

And while the Russian attacks on Georgia -- as well as those on Estonia a year earlier -- focuse primarily on government sites and systems, it's important to remember that systems in the private sector could quickly become targets as well, the report says. In Georgia, for example, two banks and several newspapers were attacked during the cyber conflict.

"In any military operation, one of the first targets is communications," Bumgarner observes. "In a cyber attack, you can expect the media to be a first target, any vehicle that might be used to tell people what's going on."

Government systems make up only a small fraction of the critical systems that serve any country, and are only a small number of the systems on the Internet, Bumgarner notes. "It's likely that in any cyber conflict, private sector computers will fall victim to attack," he says.

Businesses should take care to implement security tools and processes not only to protect themselves from direct attack, but to prevent their systems from becoming unwitting bots or zombies in large-scale DDoS attacks, Bumgarner says.

"You could become a participant in a cyber attack without even knowing it," Bumgarner says. "It's a chess game, and anyone could be made into a pawn."

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