Home Business IT Security North Korean cyber attacks

To hear the media tell it, the United States suffered a major cyber attack last week. Stories were everywhere


"Cyber Blitz hits U.S., Korea" was the headline in Thursday's Wall Street Journal. North Korea was blamed.

Where were you when North Korea attacked America? Did you feel the fury of North Korea's armies? Were you fearful for your country? Or did your resolve strengthen, knowing that we would defend our homeland bravely and valiantly?

My guess is that you didn't even notice, that - if you didn't open a newspaper or read a news website - you had no idea anything was happening. Sure, a few government websites were knocked out, but that's not alarming or even uncommon. Other government websites were attacked but defended themselves, the sort of thing that happens all the time. If this is what an international cyberattack looks like, it hardly seems worth worrying about at all.

Politically motivated cyber attacks are nothing new. We've seen UK vs. Ireland. Israel vs. the Arab states. Russia vs. several former Soviet Republics. India vs. Pakistan, especially after the nuclear bomb tests in 1998. China vs. the United States, especially in 2001 when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet. And so on and so on.

The big one happened in 2007, when the government of Estonia was attacked in cyberspace following a diplomatic incident with Russia about the relocation of a Soviet World War II memorial. The networks of many Estonian organizations, including the Estonian parliament, banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters, were attacked and - in many cases - shut down. Estonia was quick to blame Russia, which was equally quick to deny any involvement.

It was hyped as the first cyberwar, but after two years there is still no evidence that the Russian government was involved. Though Russian hackers were indisputably the major instigators of the attack, the only individuals positively identified have been young ethnic Russians living inside Estonia, who were angry over the statue incident.

Poke at any of these international incidents, and what you find are kids playing politics. Last Wednesday, South Korea's National Intelligence Service admitted that it didn't actually know that North Korea was behind the attacks: "North Korea or North Korean sympathisers in the South" was what it said. Once again, it'll be kids playing politics.

This isn't to say that cyberattacks by governments aren't an issue, or that cyberwar is something to be ignored. The constant attacks by Chinese nationals against U.S. networks may not be government-sponsored, but it's pretty clear that they're tacitly government-approved. Criminals, from lone hackers to organised crime syndicates, attack networks all the time. And war expands to fill every possible theater: land, sea, air, space, and now cyberspace. But cyberterrorism is nothing more than a media invention designed to scare people. And for there to be a cyberwar, there first needs to be a war.

Israel is currently considering attacking Iran in cyberspace, for example. If it tries, it'll discover that attacking computer networks is an inconvenience to the nuclear facilities it's targeting, but doesn't begin to substitute for bombing them.

In May, President Obama gave a major speech on cybersecurity. He was right when he said that cybersecurity is a national security issue, and that the government needs to step up and do more to prevent cyberattacks. But he couldn't resist hyping the threat with scare stories: "In one of the most serious cyber incidents to date against our military networks, several thousand computers were infected last year by malicious software -- malware," he said. What he didn't add was that those infections occurred because the Air Force couldn't be bothered to keep its patches up to date.

This is the face of cyberwar: easily preventable attacks that, even when they succeed, only a few people notice. Even this current incident is turning out to be a sloppily modified five-year-old worm that no modern network should still be vulnerable to.

Securing our networks doesn't require some secret advanced NSA technology. It's the boring network security administration stuff we already know how to do: keep your patches up to date, install good anti-malware software, correctly configure your firewalls and intrusion-detection systems, monitor your networks. And while some government and corporate networks do a pretty good job at this, others fail again and again.

Enough of the hype and the bluster. The news isn't the attacks, but that some networks had security lousy enough to be vulnerable to them.

This essay originally appeared on the Minnesota Public Radio website.

Bruce Schneier is the CTO of Counterpane Internet Security, and the author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World. He can be reached at www.schneier.com. This article is reproduced with permission. Copyright rests with the author.

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