Understand Cyber-Risk and Defend Your Organization

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Since the Internet places our public and private sector resources on the same global network as those that seek to harm us, we are always open to an attack.

By Andrew Serwin

It is not the norm for corporations to be the focal point of a war fought between nation states, but today's threats place us in exactly that situation. The reason these threats implicate both the public and private sector is that the cyber-domain is under attack by an organized public/private sector threat, and until we recognize that fact and address it, we will continue to fail to protect it.

The truth is that unless corporate America—the private sector–works with the public sector, we may not be able to stop a cyber-event that could be as destructive as Pearl Harbor or 9/11.

The Internet as we know it started as a public sector project that quickly morphed into what it is today: a large, interconnected network that never turns off and connects an unimaginable number of different devices in the public and private sectors, including those that control our financial system, critical infrastructure, and a variety of other devices in different industries.

These devices are central to our everyday existence, particularly when one includes mobile devices and the ever-increasing number of networked control devices. Since this always-on world of connectivity places the public and private sector resources of the United States on the same global network as those of nations and others that seek to do us harm, you cannot “raise the drawbridge”  against cyber-attacks. If you are part of the cyber-domain, you are constantly open to a potential attack.

Organized groups are always trying to find and exploit an information imbalance (one side of a conflict has superior information regarding the weaknesses of the other) and create an asymmetric threat. If that superior information relates to the weakness of another party, it can be used to create an asymmetric threat, which targets and exploits another’s weaknesses.

The best example of this contrasts 9/11 with Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor involved an organized, but symmetric threat. It was the Japanese military attacking another nation state’s military. And while Japan exploited an information imbalance, it was a fight between combatants with roughly equal resources.

For 9/11, Al Qaeda did not need an organized military. It simply needed utility knives, training and, most importantly, information about how our system of air travel worked. By creating this information imbalance, they were able to perpetrate a devastating asymmetric attack on the United States.

The lesson of 9/11 was not lost on the public sector, which realized the nature of the threat and took steps to address it. Consider recent Executive Orders, the words of General Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, and a recent speech by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

In 2005, President Bush issued Executive Order 13388, “Further Strengthening the Sharing of Terrorism Information to Protect Americans”, with the goal of sharing information about terrorism among key stakeholders in the public and private sector. In 2010, President Obama reaffirmed the need for public sector and private sector cooperation and information sharing with Executive Order 13549, “Classified National Security Information Program for State, Local, Tribal, and Private Sector Entities.”

In a recent presentation, Secretary Panetta illustrated the true nature of the threat: state-sponsored activity that is increasing in intensity and has the potential to disrupt our way of life. “A cyber-attack perpetrated by nation states or violent extremist groups could be as destructive as the terrorist attack on 9/11,” and Panetta also believed that “such a destructive cyber-terrorist attack could virtually paralyze the nation.” Panetta continued, “We know of specific instances where intruders have successfully gained access to these control systems,” and “We also know they are seeking to create advanced tools to attack those systems and cause panic, destruction and even loss of life.”

The critical point is that the examples Secretary Panetta uses are not attacks on the Department of Defense or other public sector resources. They are attacks on the financial institutions and energy sector by the government resources of another nation state.

This threat is not limited to the financial and energy industries. Terrorists can attempt to hack a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) device that controls a water supply? Or they can try to disrupt the medical services in a large area by attacking the systems of a large hospital chain or major health insurer. The threats are nearly endless and span a multitude of businesses.

In sum, we face a new, more diffused threat: organized well-funded attacks by entities that are state sponsored or part of organized crime networks. These actors seek to create information advantages that can be turned into asymmetric threats, and these threats are a clear and present danger to our society.

The only chance the private sector has to combat these threats is to organize itself and utilize technology tools to address these concerns. It also includes the doctrine of Information Superiority and increased information sharing.

Andrew Serwin is the chair of the Privacy Security and Information Management Practice at law firm Foley & Lardner LLP and the executive director of the Lares Institute.

This article was originally published on 2013-02-15
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