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Security experts push back at 'Cyber Pearl Harbor' warning

The only effective defense is to 'build security in' from the ground up, critics say in response to DoD, DHS comments

By Taylor Armerding, CSO
November 07, 2012 07:25 AM ET

CSO - The nation's top national security leaders have convinced President Obama and much of the leadership in Congress that the U.S. is at risk of a "Cyber Pearl Harbor" or "Digital 9/11" if it does not take drastic measures to improve both defensive and offensive cybersecurity capabilities against hostile nation states.

Defense Secretary warns of Pearl Harbor

But the leaders, Defense (DoD) Secretary Leon Panetta and Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano have not, however, convinced every expert in the cybersecurity community, and there is now some increasingly vocal push-back from some of them.

Critics argue argue that not only is the threat of a catastrophic cyberattack greatly exaggerated, but that the best way to guard against the multiple risks they agree exist is not with better firewalls or offensive strikes against potential attacks, but to "build security in" to the control systems that run the nation's critical infrastructure.

Bruce Schneier, author, Chief Technology Security Officer at BT and frequently described as a security "guru," has not backed off of his contention made at a debate two years ago that the cyber war threat "has been greatly exaggerated." He said that while a major attack would be disruptive, it would not even be close to an existential threat to the U.S.

"This [damage] is at the margins," he said, adding that even using the term "war" is just a, "neat way of phrasing it to get people's attention. The threats and vulnerabilities are real, but they are not war threats."

[See also: Following Sandy, DHS seeks security 'Cyber Reserve']

Gary McGraw, CTO of Cigital, recently argued that while existing control systems are "riddled with security vulnerabilities" since they are outdated and were not designed with security in mind, trying to protect them with a preemptive attack against a perceived threat would be both dangerous and fruitless.

McGraw, who has been preaching the "build-security-in" mantra for years, is highly skeptical of claims that government is now much better at "attribution" -- knowing exactly who launched an attack.

"If they have solved it, they need to tell us hard-core security people how they did it, because we don't really believe them," he said, noting that a major retaliation against a party that didn't launch an attack could be more catastrophic than the initial attack. "Proactive defense," by eliminating the vulnerabilities in the control systems, is a much better approach, McCgraw argues.

Besides the attribution problem, McGraw wrote that cyber-offense capabilities of an adversary are unlikely to be knocked out by an attack. Quoting estimates from Ralph Langner, the security consultant credited with cracking the Stuxnet malware, he said that while it takes $90 billion to develop a nuclear submarine fleet, a cyberweapons program aimed at hardened military targets would cost more like $1 billion. And a single-use attack against critical infrastructure might cost as little as $5 million, he said. 

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