America's Growing Cyber-Defenses
As the series of cyber-attacks in Estonia demonstrated this spring, the battles of ones and zeros fought out between hackers and security experts all over the World Wide Web are by and large bloodless affairs.
No Estonian cities were left in smoking ruin during the mêlée and not a single casualty was caused by those wily hackers throughout the entire affair that has now been widely labeled as history's first cyber-war.
In fact, reading one of the recent studies of the dust-up makes it seems as though the incident was more of a nuisance than an actual attack.
For instance, according to one study of the events in Estonia, conducted by Jose Nazaio, a senior security researcher at Arbor Networks, there were 128 unique recorded denial-of-service attacks on Estonian-based URLs during the assault. Most lasted less than an hour, with the longest attack lasting some 10 hours and 30 minutes.
In all, according to the study, the attack managed to overwhelm the system and shut down up to 58 sites at once, which is a far cry from the events of an actual war.
Yet for all the "normal" war carnage that the Estonian attack failed to deliver, governments around the world viewed the attacks with a more critical eye, knowing full well what the series of cyber attacks showed about their own vulnerabilities.
They all knew that it could have been considerably worse.
That's because the internet is a huge and ungoverned electronic machine that we have all become increasingly dependent on.
That makes it enormously vulnerable to potential mischief.
Greg Day, security analyst at internet software firm McAfee (MFE:NYSE), says: "The challenge with the internet is the ease in which the average person can either recruit others to achieve such attacks or pick up the skills to do it themselves. As the internet is a global entity, tracing the origin can be a complex and very time-consuming task."
That makes it a rich target of opportunity, not so different from any other wartime objective.
As a result, a cyber attack by our enemies could have a significant effect in the United States. Targets could include defense networks, the energy sector, emergency preparedness systems, financial services, telecommunications, or even the agricultural sector.
That means that in a coordinated cyber attack no buildings would have to fall to weaken us militarily, economically or politically.
In fact, the U.S government takes these threats so seriously that the Department of Defense is prepared, based on the authority of the president, to launch either a cyber counterattack or an actual bombing of the source.
"It's the President's call," says Mark Hall, a Defense Department official and co-chair of the National Cyber Response Coordination Group. "We have to be able to respond."
Part of that response, no doubt, was learned from a simulated attack a little over a year ago called "Cyberstorm." It was conducted with the participation of over 100 agencies and associations working from 60 locations in five countries.
Its goal was to stress the system through a series of attacks on potential targets and to develop insights into what might constitute a better response to future attacks. It included the participation of eleven major IT corporations.
As recent attacks have shown, there is a lot more to internet security than the firewalls that all of us place between ourselves and the increasingly dangerous internet. The move now is to create secure network connections through authentication and authorization.
That's where Verisign comes in. It manages two of the world's 13 internet root servers and provides authoritative routing support for as many as 31 billion domain name system (DNS) queries everyday.
Additionally, the company protects more than 750,000 web servers with digital certificates, protecting the majority of secure web sites on the internet, including 93% of the Fortune 500 sites.
Not surprisingly, the company also plays a major role in protecting availability of the network infrastructure for the U.S. government. Their security measures ensure the continuity of critical services and protect sensitive government transactions and communications.
But completely defending America against cyber attacks will take a much bigger effort from companies like Verisign and others in the future. What happened in Estonia, unfortunately, was just the beginning.
That, of course, means a steady stream of new business for computer security companies.
Next week I'll take a futher look at how the industry is changing in response to these growing threats.
Wishing you happiness, health and wealth,
Steve Christ, Editor
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