NORRIS: Later this month, the Pentagon will unveil its new strategy for fighting a cyber war. Until now, most cyber war scenarios have featured a sudden overwhelming attack that would shut down the power grid and paralyze transportation. But security experts say an actual cyber war is likely to unfold slowly and systematically.
In fact, some think we're already in one, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN: U.S. officials and security experts until now have separated three things, cyber crime, cyber espionage, and cyber war. Except for minor incidents in Estonia and Georgia a few years ago, we supposedly have not yet experienced cyber war.
The top cyber specialists at the Pentagon, Robert Butler, routinely talks about how often the Defense Department is hit by cyber attacks. But at a cyber security conference here last week, he distinguished between those intrusions and cyber war.
Mr. ROBERT BUTLER (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy, U.S. Department of Defense): Right now, you know, what we typically are seeing is criminal activity.
GJELTEN: Criminal activity, stealing things.
Mr. BUTLER: What you're trying to work through is understanding, one, what has happened; two, the type of threat.
GJELTEN: What's being stolen, information, weapon designs? And for what purpose and by whom, foreign governments maybe? Critical questions, because the threat landscape is changing.
In the last few months, security experts inside and outside the government say they've seen cyber attacks that are unprecedented in their sophistication. And one consequence is that the old distinctions between crime, espionage and war could be disappearing.
Among the speakers at last week's conference was Max Kelly. He investigated cyber activity at the FBI, and then became chief of security at Facebook.
Mr. MAX KELLY (Former Chief Security Officer, Facebook): When I look at what real cyber warfare scenarios are going to be, I think they're going to be very much like cybercriminal scenarios, in that they're largely covert. If there are actual actions, they're very targeted actions.
GJELTEN: Here's one action that, at first, may look like cyber crime, but could actually be part of a cyber war plan. You have a technology company with some servers and a lot of bandwidth. A foreign adversary hacks into it, but not to steal your technology, just to get access to your computer system, and then to sit there and wait. When the moment for actual cyber war finally comes, the adversary will have the perfect base from which to operate, your company.
Mr. KELLY: They can suddenly use that to attack anywhere they want to in the world, and it's going to look like it came from you.
GJELTEN: That's how a cyber war could start. And here's what's scary, it may already be happening. Some recent cyber intrusions fit this scenario of an adversary hacking into a company to use it as a base for future cyber war or to gather information to use in a future attack.
A penetration of the cyber security company RSA in March set the stage for a subsequent attack on Lockheed Martin.
Herbert Thompson teaches cyber security at Columbia University.
Professor HERBERT THOMPSON (Cyber Security, Columbia University): I think what we're seeing today are the more reconnaissance activities of cyber war. And that really is fascinating.
GJELTEN: Take Google's announcement last week that hundreds of its Gmail accounts were hacked from China. Thompson, who runs a company called People Security, says the perpetrators may have wanted to identify individuals with access to some sensitive facility or information in the idea that cyber warriors could then pose as those people during some future conflict.
Prof. THOMPSON: We're likely to see a series of these small but subtle battles, where the attacker, the nation state, is doing reconnaissance, gathering information and really amassing the new weaponry of cyber warfare, which is intelligence about people who may be interesting targets.
GJELTEN: Reconnaissance, of course, has always been part of war fighting, cyber, Thompson argues, is simply a new war-fighting domain. And like other domains - air, land or sea - cyberspace requires its own techniques for gathering intelligence, and it introduces brand new war-fighting capabilities.
Prof. THOMPSON: And that's the phase we're in right now.
GJELTEN: Right now, the era of cyber war already here.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.