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Is the U.S. the nation most vulnerable to cyberattack?

Ex-presidential advisor Richard Clarke warns cyberattacks could lead to more traditional combat

By , Network World
April 07, 2010 08:07 AM ET

Network World - Although the United States likely has the best cyberwar capabilities in the world, "that offensive prowess cannot make up for the weaknesses in our defensive position," one-time presidential advisor Richard Clarke argues in his forthcoming book Cyber War.

Clarke -- who served as special advisor to the president for cybersecurity in 2001 and now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School for Government and works at Good Harbor Consulting -- fears that any outbreak of cyber warfare would spill over into more violent conflict.

Read an excerpt from CyberWar: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It |
Network World's review of Clarke's book

"Far from being an alternative to conventional war, cyber war may actually increase the likelihood of the more traditional combat with explosives, bullets and missiles," Clarke writes in his book, which is due out April 20.

Several nations, most prominently Russia, the People's Republic of China and North Korea, are already assembling cyber armies and attack weapons that could be used to attack other nations, he says. Given that the United States is heavily dependent on technology for everything from computer-based banking to supply-chain tracking and air-traffic control, it's particularly vulnerable to the denial-of-service attacks, electronic jamming, data destruction and software-based disinformation tricks likely in a cyberattack.

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With Russia and China as the adversaries to be most concerned about, Clarke notes that the Pentagon has established the U.S. Cyber Command to fight cyberwars and defend the Department of Defense against cyberattack. (The Department of Homeland Security [DHS] is tasked with defending other federal agencies.) But America's Achilles heel may be the corporate sector, which has been left largely on its own when it comes to cyber defenses; the public Internet and telecommunications infrastructures, which are operated largely by private companies; and the fact that much of the nation's tech manufacturing is done overseas.

According to Clarke, those vulnerabilities in the United States could give China the upper hand in a cyber conflict.

"The Chinese government has both the power and the means to disconnect China's slice of the Internet from the rest of the world, which they may very well do in the event of a conflict with the United States," he maintains, adding that China's cyber warriors have a mission to defend all of China's infrastructure, not just military-run pieces.

As a result, Clarke advocates both new international agreements aimed at preventing cyberwar and world cooperation to trace back attacks that appear to violate any agreements, even though finding an aggressor can be very hard on the Internet. Clarke also would like to see changes in the United States that would put the nation's ISPs in charge of proactively stopping attacks, albeit under government regulation and oversight.

As someone who was involved in negotiations over nuclear weapons and arms control in Europe during the Cold War, Clarke points out that diplomatic relations with Russia have never been easy. But Russia -- which has indicated it would consider a massive cyberattack from another nation as an act that could bring retaliation with traditional weapons -- has for several years been the main advocate of putting cyberwar on the table diplomatically in order to craft treaties about it.

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