Cyber Pearl Harbor or Just Cyber Space…

There has been a lot of news recently about the potential for the coming Cyber Pearl Harbor. A cyber attack that would mirror the devastation that hit the naval base in Pearl Harbor during the beginning of WWII. According to an article in CSO Magazine on October 18, 2012, the United States is concerned of a coming cyber attack. The concept of comparing the attack to Pearl Harbor has been around for several years. It wasn’t until a recent a speech by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Penetta in New York that this has become more of a topic.

The article states the following:

The results of cyberttacks by a hostile nation-state on critical infrastructure like transportation, water supply or the electric grid “could be a cyber Pearl Harbor — an attack that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life,” Panetta said. “In fact, it would paralyze and shock the nation and create a new, profound sense of vulnerability.”

Panetta also invoked the image of a cyberattack on the level of 9/11. “Before September 11, 2001, the warning signs were there. We weren’t organized. We weren’t ready and we suffered terribly for that lack of attention. We cannot let that happen again. This is a pre-9/11 moment,” he said.

In a follow-up article in CSO Magazine November 7th, the opposing viewpoint was brought forth. Many in the security industry feel that the concept and description of a Cyber Pearl Harbor is nothing more than hot air. Experts including Bruce Schneier have chimed in. Bruce has reduced the extent to which he believes the concept to be exaggerated but according to he article:

Critics argue argue that not only is the threat of a catastrophic cyberattack greatly exaggerated, but that the best way to guard against the multiple risks they agree exist is not with better firewalls or offensive strikes against potential attacks, but to “build security in” to the control systems that run the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Bruce Schneier, author, Chief Technology Security Officer at BT and frequently described as a security “guru,” has not backed off of his contention made at a debate two years ago that the cyber war threat “has been greatly exaggerated.” He said that while a major attack would be disruptive, it would not even be close to an existential threat to the U.S.

“This [damage] is at the margins,” he said, adding that even using the term “war” is just a, “neat way of phrasing it to get people’s attention. The threats and vulnerabilities are real, but they are not war threats.”

The reality is that it is probably somewhere in the middle of the two viewpoints. It can be likened to the Y2K issue a little over a decade ago. The world was going to come to an end and the dark ages would re-emerge. The reality was that preparation help minimize what little impact there may have been. Security is a risk decision, but most risk decisions are defensive in nature. The other decision of a preemptive cyber capability is another aspect of the decision-making that needs to be addressed. Should the U.S. begin cyber strikes on perceived threats? What is the impact of doing this on the long-term? The world has already seen a small view of what can be done with Stuxtnet and will these type of state-sponsored cyber attacks the new nuclear deterrent…that is yet to be seen.

Regardless of the direction that gets taken, business needs to look at potential cyber attacks/hacks as a real potential threat and determine what risk is willing to be accepted and what will need to be mitigated. Whether the issue is the size of a country or your home computer, measure twice, cut once is still the best direction.

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