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International Experts: Cyber Threats Are Not As Scary As You Think


(Washington, DC)  Cybersecurity is the hottest topic in international relations, diplomacy and warfare, but the topic has arisen so quickly that the world community has yet to develop a common language for even describing the nature of cyber threats, much less arrive at solutions.  And cyber warfare, although currently fostering scary headlines, may not pose the catastrophic outcome many fear. Those messages came through clearly today at a major conference hosted by Georgetown University's Institute for Law, Science and Global Security and the Atlantic Council.

"What do we call a national emergency for cybersecurity?" asked Andrea Rigoni, Director General, Global Cyber Security Center in Poste Italiane.  "Most of the time it's difficult to tag an event as cybercrime or espionage or cyberwar.  It can take weeks or years to determine what's behind an activity."

Israel has developed a two category definition for dealing with cyberthreats, Gen. (Ret.) Doron Tamir, Head of the International Cooperation Division for Israel, said.    The first category consists of cyberthreats that are criminal, such as the recent attack by Anonymous on the Israeli government's websites.  These threats, while annoying, cause little damage.  "As of yet, they have had limited effect.  In Israel, we have been attacked quite heavily by Anonymous.  They have had very limited achievement."

The second category is government-sponsored attacks, where cyberspace is used as the new domain for waging conflict.  Even there, though, "launching a cyberattack with extreme damage on a state scale is extremely difficult," Tamir said.

The biggest priority, though, should be confronting the non-state aggressors, Tamir said.  These are the groups that are more likely to attack and "they are progressing and improving their capabilities and can ruin the main sites that can affect the way of life in countries."

"The big missing component addressing any of those issues is not just a lack of situational awareness in cyberspace but a lack of situational understanding," Rafal Rohozinski, Principal, The SecDev Group said. Without a common framework for understanding the nature of the threats, where they're coming from and what they mean, cyber incidents can easily escalate, Roger Hurwitz, Senior Fellow, The Canada Centre for Global Security Studies at the University of Toronto said.  "When they [governments] don't do the math, escalatory spirals occur."

Although press reports portray cyberattacks in frightening terms, cyber weapons are just another tool in the warfare kit and should not evoke, but often do, the kind of fears that nuclear war does.  "Cyber-based attacks do not equate to nuclear-type attacks in that they do not affect society at its very basic level," Rohozinski said. "It is yet another element of force that can be used across the spectrum."

"Even in Estonia [where a high-profile series of cyber attacks occurred in 2007], nobody dies, nobody gets hurt," Tamir said.  "It's a meaningful tool...but proportion is very important."

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