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CIA official warns Congress of cyberattack danger


By Patrick Thibodeau

(IDG) -- U.S. businesses will "increasingly become the point of attack for enemies of [the] United States" by hackers and national governments using sophisticated weapons such as worms and viruses that can be used for precise attacks, warned a top CIA official in testimony last week before a congressional committee.

Lawrence Gershwin, national intelligence officer at the CIA, said U.S companies face a range of threats posed by the growing use of foreign contractors, an increased reliance on commercial software with known vulnerabilities in critical networks and sophisticated, state-sponsored cyberattack programs.

Defenders in government and business "will be at some disadvantage until more fundamental changes are made to computer and network architectures -- changes for which improved security has equal billing with increased functionality," said Gershwin before the Joint Economic Committee.

Gershwin's testimony broke no new ground in categorizing the threats and risks that exist to U.S. businesses. Intelligence and information security experts have voiced similar concerns for some time. But this hearing, organized by Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), was intended to underscore the need for legislative remedies.

Bennett soon plans to introduce legislation exempting cybersecurity data from Freedom of Information Act disclosure requirements. Private-sector trade groups argue that the FOIA exemption would allow companies to share data with government agencies without risk of public disclosure.

"There are significant real and perceived barriers to information sharing and vulnerability," said Peggy Lipps, the security director at the Banking Industry Technology Secretariat in Washington. INFOCENTER
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Duane Andrews, a former assistant secretary of Defense during the previous Bush administration and an executive vice president at San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp., pointedly told the committee that the U.S. is losing ground in protecting its systems. "The rate of progress has been slower than the growth of the potential threat," he said, blaming that disparity on a "failure to act."

"For a decade, we have had study after study and report after report pointing out that our economy and national security is at risk," said Andrews. But companies and government agencies aren't taking precautionary steps for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • Policy makers don't understand the threats.
  • Investments in cybersecurity measures interfere with business functions.
  • No oversight agency holds government and critical business functions accountable.
  • The issue is treated as a tactical problem, not a strategic one.

The threats vary, Gershwin said. Terrorist groups pose only a limited cyberthreat because they believe that "bombs still work better than bytes." But that attitude is expected to change as younger, computer-savvy terrorists rise in organizational ranks, he said.

The use of subcontractors hired by foreign partners creates "virtual" insiders whose identity and nationality are often unknown to U.S. firms, he said. "As part of an unprecedented churning of the global information technology workforce, U.S. firms are drawing on pools of computer expertise that reside in a number of potential threat countries," Gershwin said.

Although hackers lack the "requisite tradecraft" to threaten critical networks, the large worldwide population of hackers "poses a relatively high threat of an isolated or brief disruption causing serious damage," he added.

The greatest threat comes from other governments. "For the next five to 10 years or so, only nation-states appear to have the discipline, commitment and resources to fully develop capabilities to attack critical infrastructures," said Gershwin.

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