Cyber warfare: the next big threat?

By Will Spens

‘Cyberwarfare’ is a term that is used more and more frequently, not least since bands of so-called ‘hacktivists’ sought to disrupt the websites of those companies that cut their connection to WikiLeaks in the wake of the US cables furore. But it was also coined when an Iranian uranium enrichment plant was specifically targeted by a virus that appeared to have required exceptional resources to write. Are these two events one and the same?

Chaired by the editor-at-large of WIRED UK, Ben Hammersley, last night’s discussion focused on misconceptions surrounding this emergent area, as well as discussing potential threats and what we can do, both as individuals and as nations, to defend ourselves.

Dr Rex Hughes, visiting fellow in Cyber Security at Wolfson College, Cambridge University, when asked about how best to define cyber security and its implications said:

It’s very difficult to come up with common definitions and concepts that really make sense, but a lot of money is about to be spent. I think ultimately as a society we want an internet that is both open and secure and how we reconcile that is a very steep challenge indeed. Cyber attack can mean just about anything. We need much more debate and analysis – there are still many elephants in the room.

Claire Yorke, manager of the International Security Programme at Chatham House, said her focus was on how cyber security fits into the broader debate on a policy level:

What the public doesn’t realise is what it means in their everyday life and how warfare within cyberspace is far more about merging the battlefield with society as a whole. It is about creating a whole new entity, but one that is not that dissimilar from what we already know.

As to the effects of cyber crime, she added:

Cyber poses a genuine threat to economic security both nationally and internationally, with something like a penny in every pound being lost in cybercrime.

Peter Sommer, visiting professor at the London School of Economics, and author of the Hacker’s Handbook under the pseudonym of Hugo Cornwall, was keen to address what he saw as overuse of the terms ‘cyber’ and ‘war’ when discussing current global security issues:

People can get too hung up on the concept of ‘cyber’ and forget that cyber simply offers another dimension on things that have been around for a very long time, for example fraud.

In recent weeks people have been looking at activities of ‘hacktivists’ like Anonymous and calling this cyber war. It seems to me that that is probably not war in any sort of sense but rather civil disobedience with the agenda of trying to attract attention to a particular point of view. It is not cyberwarfare, but simply people demonstrating their prowess.

Carl Leonard, senior security research manager at Websense said of the current threat to individuals posed by using everyday online systems such as Gmail and Facebook that the more data we have, the more risk there is of people gaining illegal access to it:

As individuals, we have a responsibility to be security conscious. We need to evaluate the risks and we need to help ourselves and others by spreading the word.

The common myth about internet security that ‘it is not going to be me’ and that ‘someone else’ will be attacked’ might have been true a few years ago, ‘but not now,’ he said.

If you want to embrace these new technologies, do not do it foolishly.

Claire Yorke supported this view, adding that as much as possible we must share responsibility for our national security and that it is crucial to educate people on how to respond to these threats.

 Other issues raised in the discussion were around finding the balance of having an open internet as well as a secure internet and what forms of defence are the most realistic.