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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

What if a cyber Pearl Harbor never happens? Are we safe?

You hear a lot of talk about how the United States is at great risk of a cyber Pearl Harbor, an attack that could shut down communications, financial and transportation systems.

On the other hand, the attack could suddenly shut down a nuclear power plant, damaging it to the point where radioactive materials are released, killing untold numbers of people.

These sorts of scenarios that people describe sound Armageddon-like.

That was the topic of a panel at Raymond James 12th annual Government Services & Technology Summit on Tuesday.

I missed the very beginning of the panel, which featured Zal Asmi of CACI International, John Rizzo of Steptoe & Johnson LLP, and Ron Gula, Tenable Network Security.

They touched on the Pearl Harbor danger, as well as cyber warfare, which is sometimes a misnomer; cyber attacks that are criminal, espionage or even terroristic in nature, aren’t necessarily acts of war.

That might be a bit of semantic game, but it got me thinking; what if that big, devastating cyber attack -- the one people are always dreaming up and fearing -- never comes? Are we safe?

Of course not; however, I think we should stop talking about a Pearl Harbor. It's not that we shouldn't use a war analogy, especially since we are already engaged in battles and skirmishes all over the cyber domain. It's just that we should tone it down.

The Pearl Harbor analogy also might be doing a disservice to advocates of a strong cyber posture because, if nothing on that scale ever happens over time, the warnings may lose their credibility. It's like the classic "boy who cried wolf."

One thing was clear from today’s panel: that the threat is evolving rapidly. There is this concept of “rational” attacks by competitor nations who might be trying to gather intelligence or steal intellectual property.

However, as rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran gain more cyber capabilities, and as terrorist groups acquire the same, we’ll see the rise of “irrational” attacks, which will be harder to predict and guard against.

And, as technology evolves, so does the risk. Currently, the main targets are desktop operating systems, but the risk will change as more computing shifts to the cloud and mobile devices.

While Congress was unable to pass a cybersecurity bill, President Obama is expected to issue an executive order that will likely mandate that the intelligence agencies share information with the private sector, particularly owners of critical infrastructure, when an attack occurs.

There may be some privacy concerns with that, but the panelist voiced support for the sharing of this kind of information.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Jan 08, 2013 at 9:50 AM

Reader Comments

Wed, Jan 9, 2013 Louis Jurgens DC Metro area

This needs to be treated as we treat the terrorist threat. Will we see another 9/11? Maybe, maybe not. But will we stop our vigilance if we don't have another major event in 2yrs, 5yrs, 10yrs? Of course not. Same applies to cyber.

Wed, Jan 9, 2013 Dennis Meharchand Toronto, Canada

All computers in a country need to be secure so they don't be compromised and become "enemy soldiers behind the lines". The products to really secure computers such as Valtx Absolute Security for Windows and The S Chip. Its now a matter of forming the alliances to implement and mitigate the problem.

Wed, Jan 9, 2013

This assumes that the best and brightest IT folks are in the government. With continued pay freezes, hiring freezes, and overworked feds because of the downsizing of the government through attrition that is most likely not the case. Why would the best and brightest choose to work under those conditions? Federal contractors aren't going to get the best and brightest either because political upsmanship prevents the issuance many long term contracts.

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