Cold war doctrines on how to respond to nuclear attack need to be applied to the 21st century threats of cyber attacks and espionage, according to former US Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff.
Chertoff told delegates at the RSA Conference in London that around 100 countries had cyber-espionage and cyber-attack capabilities. Both kinds of attack used the same tools and might be used to mount anything from a "garden variety cyber-espionage" attack resulting in the corruption of financial data to something that might result in loss of life, such as a possible attack against air-traffic control systems.
"I'm not saying that you need to respond to virtual attacks with real attacks but I do think it's important to define when and how it might be appropriate to respond," Chertoff explained. "Everyone needs to understand to rules of the game," he added.
Agreed principles would include how it might be allowable to respond to persistent cyber attacks.
Spoofing and disguising the origins of cyber attacks are routinely applied via the use of botnets and other tactics. Chertoff acknowledged attributing the true source of a cyber attack was difficult, but argued that it still ought to be permissible to strike back against the source of an attack, whoever was ultimately controlling compromised systems.
"In cases where you have a persistent attack on critical national infrastructures, incapacitating the platform used to attack is something you have to do," Chertoff explained. He argued that the possibility of counter-attacks might provide an incentive to countries whose internet hygiene is poor to clean up their act.
Ira Winkler, president of the Internet Security Advisors Group - an ex-NSA officer turned cybercrime guru and author - said that since security wasn't built into air traffic control systems by design, attacks against these systems might be feasible, even though we are thankfully yet to see any such attack. ®