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Tuesday, 18 January 2011 08:27

Relax, there's little chance of cyber war or cyber catastrophe

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The OECD has produced a report on the likelihood and possible impacts of a globally catastrophic cyber-security breakdown. It concludes that such an event is unlikely, but makes a number of recommendations on precautionary measures that governments should take.

The conclusion of the 122 page report is that very few single cyber-related events could cause a global shock. Such events could include: successful attack on one of the underlying technical protocols upon which the Internet depends, such as the Border Gateway Protocol which determines routing between Internet service providers and a very large-scale solar flare which physically destroys key communications components such as satellites, cellular base stations and switches.

Aside from these the suggest that likely breaches of cyber security such as malware, distributed denial of service, espionage, and the actions of criminals, recreational hackers and hacktivists would be relatively localised and short-term in impact.

"Successful prolonged cyber attacks need to combine: attack vectors which are not already known to the information security community and thus not reflected in available preventative and detective technologies, so-called zero-day exploits; careful research of the intended targets; methods of concealment both of the attack method and the perpetrators; the ability to produce new attack vectors over a period as current ones are reverse-engineered and thwarted."

They point to the recent Stuxnet attack apparently against Iranian nuclear facilities, as something that "points to the future but also the difficulties" and conclude: "It is unlikely that there will ever be a true cyber war. The reasons are: many critical computer systems are protected against known exploits and malware so that designers of new cyber weapons have to identify new weaknesses and exploits; the effects of cyber attacks are difficult to predict - on the one hand they may be less powerful than hoped but may also have more extensive outcomes arising from the interconnectedness of systems, resulting in unwanted damage to perpetrators and their allies."

However, the authors say: "Governments nevertheless need to make detailed preparations to withstand and recover from a wide range of unwanted cyber events, both accidental and deliberate. There are significant and growing risks of localised misery and loss as a result of compromise of computer and telecommunications services.'

The report is part of a broader OECD study into Future Global Shocks, examples of which could include a further failure of the global financial system, large-scale pandemics, escape of toxic substances resulting in wide-spread long-term pollution, and long-term weather or volcanic conditions inhibiting transport links across key intercontinental routes.

It was prepared for the OECD by Dr Peter Sommer, a visiting professor in the Information Systems and Innovation Group in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics, and Dr Ian Brown, research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford University.

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