Page last updated at 11:06 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

US urges 'action' needed to fight net attacks

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, San Francisco

dept of homeland security poster
All Americans have a role to play in securing cyberspace says the DHS

Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano has admitted there is an urgent need to step up efforts to protect Americans from cyber attacks.

Her comments at the world's largest security conference hosted by vendor RSA, comes as the cyber threat grows ever more sophisticated.

Incidents like the attack on Google in China have underscored the issue.

"We need to do more and we need to do it faster," Secretary Napolitano told the audience in San Francisco.

She said the government was working with a "sense of urgency" and that the Department of Homeland Security, DHS, "stands at a very important juncture".

Secretary Napolitano stressed that even in working with the private sector, "again the sense of urgency needs to be increased".

Michael Chertoff, former DHS secretary, under President George W Bush, agreed.

"We are seeing in the intervening time the adversaries, whether they be criminals or nation states or terrorists, are not taking time off. So with each passing year, the need to move faster becomes greater."

'Intelligent systems'

In May 2009, President Obama made what was regarded as a watershed speech on the importance of dealing with the cyber threat.

Janet Napolitano Homeland Security Secretary
Ms Napolitano wants industry to partner with government

Ms Napolitano made reference to it as every government official who has addressed this conference has done.

"The President himself has described our networks and hardware as strategic national assets and called the growing number of attacks as one of the most serious... our nation faces."

Ms Napolitano listed a number of efforts the government is making towards a more strategic approach to the problem.

These include using a technology called Einstein to try and prevent attacks on federal networks before they happen.

Einstein is a so-called intrusion detection system that monitors the entry points into government networks for unauthorised traffic.

"We don't live in a static world. We have to evolve to deal with the threats," said Ms Napolitano.

The secretary made an appeal to security professionals and industry leaders at RSA to go the extra mile to increase security and improve their products so that security is automatic and the reaction to attacks can happen at internet speed.

'Nuclear option'

Government officials have come out in force at the RSA conference to drive home the message that the issue is a priority for the administration.

Google in China
The Google-China spat illustrates the evolving complexity of the threat

But Mr Chertoff points to a gaping hole in its strategy.

He told BBC News that during the cold war, an uneasy peace existed because "people understood if you launch, we are going to launch back".

Mr Chertoff said he does not advocate a nuclear option but prefers what he called a "deterrence option" that outlines what action will be taken against anyone who targets the US in a cyber attack .

"We need to state what we will tell the country we hold accountable if there is an attack on our network. We also need to lay out what will happen if the attack comes from a network they can't control in their own country and what sanctions we will take? Also should there be some international discussion or approach?

"Clarity in areas like these reduce the likelihood of a fight because everybody's expectations are clear and the antagonist can't say they don't know what they face if they attack us, " said Mr Chertoff.

Ms Napolitano ended her appearance with the launch of a competition to encourage cybersecurity experts and individuals to develop innovative new ways to enhance public awareness about the importance of safeguarding the nation's computer systems from attacks by criminals and terrorists.

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