The danger posed by international hack attacks against critical US networks is in some ways comparable to the threat Soviet nuclear warheads posed during the Cold War, the President's top national security aide told an industry gathering Thursday, providing a first glimpse of the Bush administration's emerging cybersecurity policy.
"Critical infrastructure protection is a core issue for security for the United States, and one that therefore sits squarely on the radar screen at the National Security Council," said Condoleezza Rice, who heads the council as the White House's National Security Advisor.
"Virtually every vital service - water supply, transportation, energy, banking and finance, telecommunications, public health - all of these rely upon computers and fiber optic lines, switches and the routers that connect them," said Rice. "Corrupt those networks and you disrupt this nation."
Preventing such a cyberattack calls for "a collaborative partnership between the public and private sectors that is unprecedented in our history", said Rice, in a keynote address at the Internet Security Policy Forum II, organized by CIO and Darwin magazines, and the Commerce Department's Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office (CIAO).
Rice is a noted expert on the former Soviet Union, and she worked on nuclear strategic planning at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the mid-1980s. She said yesterday that the same strategies that averted nuclear armageddon may also work to stave off a cyber war.
"One thing that we can learn from the atomic age is that preparation, a clear desire and a clear willingness to confront the problem, and a clear willingness to show that you are prepared to confront the problem, is what keeps it from happening in the first place," said Rice.
America's "soft underbelly"
"In some ways, this is a classic deterrence mission," Rice said. "If we want to try and prevent people from trying to attack us - trying to use the soft underbelly, if you will, of the American economy or American military forces or American society - then we have to be honest that there is a problem, that there are adversaries that will try and exploit it, and we have to show that we are prepared to deal with it."
Rice did not say who those adversaries are, but Clinton administration officials frequently pointed to China and North Korea as potential cyber war opponents. To date, no state-sponsored cyber attack on a critical infrastructure is known to have occurred, and there's disagreement among experts on the likelihood of an electronic Pearl Harbor.
"I thought that the Bush Administration would be more preoccupied with national missile defense than information warfare," says George Smith, author of The Virus Creation Labs and a well known infowar sceptic. "I think that the way information warfare is discussed at the top of the national security structure is not helpful. It's mostly elaborate propaganda."
Smith argues that there's no evidence to suggest that computer attacks will ever have the destructive potential of traditional methods of warfare and terrorism, much less nuclear bombs.
"The attack on the USS Cole was really low tech. It was some guys with a rubber boat full of high explosives, and it was pretty successfully in that the Cole had to be brought home on floating dry dock," says Smith. "Nobody used any computers to aid that one."
Present at the Creation
But Rice was unsparing in her assessment, and warned that cold war models like the 'game theory' that influenced nuclear warfare strategy may even fail against the alleged cyber threat.
"Both the government and the private sector need to be prepared for the day when all of our efforts may not be enough," said Rice. "Deterrence worked for us in the cold war, but we must always be prepared if it does not work... We have to be prepared for scenarios where we have to restore and reconstitute critical operations quickly if they are disrupted."
Notwithstanding the talk of deterrence, Rice did not explicitly propose a policy of swift counter-attacks against cyber aggressors.
Rice closed by invoking the memoirs of Dean Acheson, Secretary of State under Harry Truman, who wrote of being "present at the creation" of a new type of foreign policy in a world changed forever by the development of nuclear weapons.
"All of us here today will be able to speak of being present at the creation of the strategy and structures that guide our efforts to meet the challenges of the information age," said Rice. ®
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