National Security

A Review Of 2010's Cyberwar Developments

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Three U.S. presidents have now identified the prospect of cyberattacks as a threat to U.S. national security, but only in the past year has awareness of the danger approached a critical level. Several simulations of possible cyberwar scenarios have underscored the vulnerability of critical U.S. infrastructure — power grids, transportation systems and financial networks — to cyberattacks. Also this year, the discovery of the "Stuxnet" virus demonstrated that sophisticated cyberweapons have already been developed, with tremendous significance for both offensive and defensive cyberwar planning. Audie Cornish talks to NPR's Tom Gjelten for a review of 2010 cyberwar developments.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.


And Im Audie Cornish.

This week, we're examining some of the foreign policy challenges facing the U.S. in the coming year. And right up near the top of the list is the threat of cyber war. Prepping for that possibility falls to the new U.S. Cyber Command, which became fully operational just a couple of months ago.

The prospect of cyber war seemed remote until recently. But a number of developments this year raised concerns.

NPR's Tom Gjelten has been following the cyber scene for us and he's here to fill us in. Hi, Tom.


CORNISH: So if there's one story that sums up how cyber war concerns have risen in the last 12 months, what would it be?

GJELTEN: I think, Audie, it's just the fact that we're now talking about cyber war. Because up until now, we've heard two things. We've heard about cyber crime, which is like hacking into bank accounts, credit card frauds, stolen identities - all that happening on the Internet. And we've heard about cyber espionage, which is basically foreign governments hacking into our computer networks to steal secrets.

But cyber war is different. This is about actually someone attacking us in cyberspace. And for me, a key moment came last February when the director of National Intelligence delivered his annual assessment of security threats facing the country.

Terrorism, nuclear proliferation had always been out there. This year, for the first time, he identified the danger of cyber attacks on the United States as the single, the number one greatest security threat facing the country.

CORNISH: How much of a surprise was that?

GJELTEN: I think what the national security establishment in the U.S. is just now realizing is how vulnerable we are in the cyber domain. I mean, we're very dependent on our computer networks for everything from power to transportation, to our financial system. But I think it took, for example, a number of simulation exercises that took place in the last year that sort of underscored how undefended those systems are.

The other big development was this Stuxnet worm that we heard about for the first time. Now, that was a worm that was designed - it was an actual cyber weapon designed to damage facilities comparable in some ways to way a bomb could damage facilities. In this case, it was targeted against the Iranian nuclear facilities but it could also have been targeting a U.S. facility.

CORNISH: And did it do some damage there or what do we know about the effects of it?

GJELTEN: We're still trying to figure that out. There's a lot of evidence that it actually did damage the Iranian nuclear facilities. It did not blow it up. But with a little bit of a different programming, it could actually blow things up, like pipelines, for example.

CORNISH: And the U.S. military does have a cyber command. I mean, what are we going to see from this Cyber Command in 2011?

GJELTEN: I think the big thing from Cyber Command in this next year is going to be trying to figure out a way for the government and the private sector to work together better. Right now there's been very little cooperation, collaboration between, for example, those responsible for defending our networks and those responsible for coming up with new cyber weapons.

And I think that the Stuxnet example, again, showed how important it is for the government and the private sector to find ways to work together. Thats something we'll see worked on at Cyber Command.

CORNISH: And obviously we can't talk about this issue without talking about WikiLeaks. It's been the big complication for the military this year, with all of the documents that were released through WikiLeaks. So how has this changed the thinking about cyber conflict more generally?

GJELTEN: Well, two quick things, Audie. First of all, it shows that information itself can be a weapon. I think the United States has previously seen the free flow of information as a good thing. Now we're seeing in the cyber domain how information can actually be used against a state, against a government.

The other thing is that we saw, again for the first time, something that we'd talked about in theory before but never actually seen - a little cyber war fought around WikiLeaks. Remember the way that the defenders of WikiLeaks actually used these attacks against companies that were working against WikiLeaks?

That was the first little cyber war of its kind that we'd ever seen before. So it's a taste of things to come, Audie.

CORNISH: Thanks so much for talking about this with us, Tom.

GJELTEN: You bet.

CORNISH: Thats NPR's Tom Gjelten.

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