Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cyberwar - how can governments protect their digital border?

Border control is really only a recent development in the evolution of nations.

For thousands of years we can distinguish nations by their common language, culture, cuisine and other shared characteristics.

However, with a few exceptions, it is only in the last few hundred years that the physical borders solidified into boundaries that delineated the majority of nations into tightly defined geographic areas of governance.

The internet more closely reflects the situation of hundreds of years ago.

Separations online are more reflective of language and culture than of national borders. People are able to freely visit websites from other nations, no passports or security checks, again with a few notable exceptions.

However with the prospect of cyberwar it may become necessary for nations to rethink this position, as illustrated in the recent war between Russia and Georgia.

While there has been limited reporting in press and television (who prefer the images of an actual physical conflict), potentially the most damaging front of the war has been online.

Up to 60 percent of Georgia's online assets have been attacked online, in a cyberwar that started several weeks before actual Russian troops began engaging Georgian forces.

The cyberwar forced the Georgian President to relocate his personal site to the US, ironically using Google services as a more secure solution than could be provided by the Georgian government during the conflict.

This isn't the first cyberwar, and won't be the last - Estonia and Lithuania have also faced large-scale attacks in cyberspace.

It is still unclear whether the Georgian attack was conducted by the Russian government, or by freelance supporters. In either case it does flag the need to protect the digital borders of a nation.

So who dies in a cyber attack? Some might consider cyberwar as an amusing sideshow to the bloody spectacle of a war fought with guns and bombs.

Consider that the aim of a nation making war is to diminish or destroy the capacity of a foe to wage war, thereby making the winning nation able to impose it's will on the losing nation.

This doesn't necessarily require a war involving military action. What is required is to destroy capacity.

What is the impact of destroying a nation's banking system, its telecommunications network or its ability to manage food distribution?

What is the impact of bringing down the electricity grid, taking water utilities offline, crashing all the electronic systems of government departments, hospitals, airports and businesses?

A combination of some or all of these actions would cripple a modern nation such as the US or Australia, at least for a period of time.

By crippling them a foe could achieve a similar outcome to a limited war - even a smaller nation, or non-nation, without the ability to engage in an effective military action.

Nations face these threats now, and will continue to do so in the forseeable future, and it requires different types of soldiers and generals to wage or resist these attacks.

It is also necessary for governments to think beyond the security of government systems, to also identify commercial systems that require government protection.

The US is already thinking in this way - and expressing this publicly - as reflected in
the excellent interview with US Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff in Wired, Chertoff: I'm Listening to the Internet (Not in a Bad Way).

Chertoff clearly recognises the threat extends across all systems with internet access,
There is an interdependence on the internet that puts a premium on being a responsible citizen. If you fail to protect your own assets, it doesn't just affect your assets, it affects the assets of everyone linked up to you.
The CIA is also gearing up to combat this new form of warfare, led by CIO Al Tarasiuk as reported in CIO magazine, Inside the CIA's Extreme Technology Makeover.

In Australia we don't talk quite so much publicly about what the government is doing to protect the digital security of our citizens - rightly or wrongly.

However I believe it is important for everyone involved in the online area to spare a thought now and then for the importance of their digital assets and the potential risks we face in this arena.

You might be titled an IT Manager, Systems Administrator, Webmaster or Online Manager, but you're also potentially a front-line soldier in the event of a cyberwar against Australia.

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