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The cold war in cyberspace

There are growing signs that the world is engaging in a “cyber cold war”, says a new report from security firm McAfee.The company’s annual Virtual Criminology Report says experts have noted mounting attacks and network penetrations that appear to be motivated by political objectives instead of financial gain.“If cyberspace becomes the next battleground, what are the implications for the global economy and vital citizen services that rely upon the information infrastructure?” asks McAfee’s CEO Dave DeWalt in an introduction to the report.The most notable use of cyberspace for political purposes occurred during the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia over the troubled Georgian province of South Ossetia. Russians nationalists defaced Georgian Web sites and staged denial of service attacks aimed at discrediting the Georgian position.More recently, US government and private Web sites such as Amazon and Yahoo, were subjected to denial of service attacks over this year’s 4th of July holiday weekend. Security experts speculated that the attacks originated in North Korea, as South Korean sites were also attacked. McAfee suggests it may have been a test conducted by North Korea to determine its ability to affect communications between South Korea and its American ally, in the event of a cross-border conflict.The McAfee report says if a major cyber conflict between nation-states were to erupt, it is very likely that the private sector would get caught in the crossfire. “Most experts agree that critical infrastructure systems – such as the electrical grid, banking and finance, and oil and gas sectors – are vulnerable to cyber attack in many countries,” the report says. “Some nation-states are actively doing reconnaissance to identify specific vulnerabilities in these networks. In the words of one expert, nation-states are ‘laying the electronic battlefield and preparing to use it’.” The report is also critical of the lack of openness about efforts to deal with potential cyber conflict issues.“Important questions, such as where to draw the line between cyber espionage and cyber war, are being discussed in private, or perhaps not at all,” it says. “Many governments have chosen to keep debate on cyber conflict classified. Since governments, corporations and private citizens all have a stake in the future of the Internet, it is time to open a global dialogue on how to manage this new form of conflict.”The full report can be read at (Adobe Reader required).