CyCon 2013 Nations swiping intellectual property from rival states and corporations are a much greater threat to economies than private cyber-criminals, America's spymaster reckons.
General Keith Alexander, National Security Agency (NSA) director and commander of US Cyber Command, made his comments during the NATO-organised CyCon conference in Estonia today.
"Theft of intellectual property has resulted in the greatest transfer of wealth in history," he said.
The spook boss accused countries of pilfering copyrighted and patent-protected documents, but declining to name the nations involved. However, senior officials in the US's Obama administration have consistently claimed China rifles through foreign networks, an allegation the Communist state's officials routinely dismiss.
Gen Alexander said America and its allies are "partly to blame" for this intellectual property theft because they had not sufficiently secured their systems, patched against known vulnerabilities or detected known malware. Estonia, for example, was famously rocked by a country-wide distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) assault that disrupted banks and government services in May 2007.
Since then the world's cyber-agents have moved from "disruptive to destructive attacks", according to Gen Alexander who cited the Wiper malware that derailed the computer network of oil giant Saudi Aramco last year. "These attacks are growing in intensity and frequency," he said, warning that the US and its allies cannot repel them all.
He called for the wider adoption of cloud-like architectures - running everything on a centrally managed server farm - so that patches can be quickly and easily rolled out, and costs cut by more efficient use of computing resources. That's opposed to networks upon networks of spread out systems riddled with bugs that have to be monitored and maintained.
Gene Alexander added that the issue was partly to do with training. "Malware typically stays on systems for six to nine months before it's identified because people aren't trained to find it. Fixing the architecture would not only thwart intellectual property theft but help take care of crime," he said.
And he suggested it was necessary to pass laws in the US requiring corporations to "tell us when an attack is going on" so that action can be taken to shore up the defences of Uncle Sam's interests.
"Contrary to what you have heard, the NSA cannot see an attack going into Wall Street unless someone tells us about it," Gen. Alexander claimed, adding that this intelligence has to supplied to his spooks in real-time. Such information-sharing proposals are a political hot potato in the US.
The general went on to say that situation-awareness in the online world is poor: "We don't have a good picture of what cyber-attacks look like and without that you don't have a good framework for policy decisions."
When a sufficiently large DDoS attack - usually launched from an army of hacker-controlled malware-infected PCs - is detected in a country, the usual response is to alert that nation's computer emergency response team, which gets in touch with its counterparts in the states hosting the attacking machines to ask for help and a cleanup.
But Gen Alexander argued that approach wouldn't work if, for example the German stock exchange was under attack and you had "30 seconds to decide what to do and how to do it. Putting a 'shout out' is not enough and you might ultimately need to take offensive measures."
He outlined this scenario in arguing that a policy and legal framework needs to be put in place that would allow US Cyber Command to deal with such a future possible threat. "Otherwise we can expect an investigation and Congressional hearing, following by more Congressional hearing during which I'll be asked why didn't we do something," he said, adding that the US had a great deal of secret intelligence on the sources of cyber-attacks around the world. ®