Other related sites

Page last updated at 12:06 GMT, Friday, 7 August 2009 13:06 UK

Defending virtual borders

By Mark Cieslak
BBC Click

The risk to government networks and major financial institutions from cyber warfare is increasing every day but what is being done to defend national borders?

Globe
"Cyber war" is an emerging global security risk

Estonia is an online savvy state and champion of so called 'e-government,' a paperless system with many government services online. The population can even vote via the web.

In 2007 a large number of Estonian government and financial websites were brought to a standstill as they came under sustained online attack.

On 4 July 2009, US and South Korean government websites and those of certain banks and businesses ground to a halt as they came under denial of service assaults. In the United States, the Pentagon and the White House were also targeted.

These cyber attacks were all initially thought to be orchestrated by countries unfriendly to Estonia, South Korea and the US and to date have been the highest profile examples of so-called cyber warfare.

Digital battlefield

Conventional warfare relies on tanks, troops, artillery, aircraft and a whole gamut of weapons systems. Cyber warfare requires a computer and an internet connection.

Professor Sommer
Professor Sommer claims that most of the attacks are over the internet

Rather than sending in the marines, the act of typing a command on a keyboard can have a devastating effect on computer systems and networks.

According to Clive Room of Portcullis Computer Security: "It is possible to bring an entire state to a standstill theoretically and we've seen it done on a small scale practically, so the threat ahead of us is very big indeed."

From criminal gangs trying to steal cash, to foreign intelligence services trying to steal secrets, the threat of cyber warfare is now very real.

Nato suspects that along with the tanks and troops involved in the conflict in Georgia in 2008, Russian forces also engaged in cyber attacks against Georgian government computer systems.

Professor Peter Sommer of the London School of Economics explained that cyber warfare should just be seen as a part of modern warfare in general:

"[Carl Von] Clausewitz said war is diplomacy conducted by other means. What cyber warfare gives you is a whole range of new types of technologies which you can apply."

Zombie machines

These international attacks are not isolated instances. Everyday government and corporate websites fend off thousands of attempts to infiltrate hack and cause disruption.

Twitter, Facebook and other high-profile sites have recently been brought to their knees by similar attacks.

The popular weapon of choice in cyber warfare is the distributed denial of service attack or DDoS. Unknown to their owners, infected computers become zombie machines digitally press-ganged to do the bidding of hackers, this is known as a botnet.

My experience of doing investigations of all sizes is that very often the initial diagnosis is wrong
Professor Sommer, London School of Economics

In their thousands these zombie machines attempt to log on to a particular website, forcing it to fail or collapse under the sheer weight of data it is receiving.

The threat of cyber warfare is being taken seriously by Western governments and Nato. Online assets are being deployed to bolster national and international digital defences.

NATO has set up a cyber defence facility in Estonia codenamed K5. The American government has launched a national cyber security strategy and the UK has responded by creating two organisations, the Office of Cyber Security and the Cyber Security Operations Centre based at GCHQ in Cheltenham.

However the amount of people involved is still small, said Clive Room.

"The government's own reckoning is about 40. About 20 people within each of those two offices."

In comparison he estimates that there are about 40,000 people "listening in to us in China" and "working round the clock."

For Professor Sommer, the UK has had a response to cyber warfare in place for 10 years, but "it's been pretty hidden so far."

"You tended to get to know about it if you were an academic or you moved in certain sort of technical circles," he said.

"More recently because the problems got bigger and because of greater public alarm and interest they have decided to make it more public."

Misdiagnosis

If defending against cyber warfare is tough, trying to pin point, track back and identify the origin of an online attack can be a near impossible task.

Computer mouse and keyboard
PCs inside a botnet can be forced to carry out instructions

In the case of the Estonian attacks, initial reports suggested that Russia was to blame. These allegations have been strongly denied by Russian authorities, and to date only one individual, an ethnic Russian student living in Estonia, has been fined as a result of the attacks.

For Professor Sommer, misdiagnosis is easy: "All too quickly people say they know where the attack is coming from."

"My experience of doing investigations of all sizes is that very often the initial diagnosis is wrong."

"If you look at the recent Korean attacks it seems, at a political level, a reasonable supposition that it originated in North Korea because they're the people that are most active at the moment.

"On the other hand, some of the reports say at a technical level they seem to have originated here in the United Kingdom, which makes no sense. So diagnosis is quite difficult."

However, one thing is certain: cyber warfare is here to stay.



Print Sponsor


SEE ALSO
What rules apply in cyber-wars?
24 Jun 09 |  Technology
US needs 'digital warfare force'
05 May 09 |  Technology
Cyber-security strategy launched
25 Jun 09 |  UK Politics
New 'cyber attacks' hit S Korea
09 Jul 09 |  Asia-Pacific
US 'concerned' over cyber threat
30 Jun 09 |  Americas
Nato's cyber defence warriors
03 Feb 09 |  Europe

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific