The harmonious headline themes of the September Group of 20
summit in Hangzhou, China, included
climate change, economic growth and limits on offshore tax
havens. But when U.S. President Barack Obama emerged from a
one-on-one with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, Obama
described the meeting with the ominous diplomatic code words
candid, blunt and businesslike.
E-mails of Obamas party organization, the Democratic
National Committee (DNC), had recently been hacked into, and
the attack was widely attributed to Russia although the
White House itself was not openly saying so. Confirming in his
news conference that cybersecurity was a discussion point with
Putin, Obama made a rather remarkable boast.
Were moving into a new era here where a number of
countries have significant capacities, he said.
Frankly, both offensively and defensively, we have more
To experts in information security, the U.S.s cyber
superiority has never been called into question, even as Russia
has displayed significant capacities in conjunction
with military actions against Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine, and
China allegedly orchestrated sizable
intellectual property and trade secret thefts before cutting
back on the practice last year.
But throwing down the gauntlet as he did, Obama brought
attention and urgency to a source of cyberthreats, known as
state actors, that had been obscure to many businesses and the
general public. Criminality, as in online credit card or
identity theft, and politically motivated hacktivism by the
likes of Anonymous or WikiLeaks have been more immediate and
tangible attack vectors.
Lines were blurred in the November 2014 infiltration of Sony
Pictures Entertainment, a hacktivist-like protest of the
release of the film The Interview that the U.S.
officially attributed to a state actor,
North Korea. It showed the havoc that a relatively small
hacker force can cause and how a geopolitical issue can
bleed over into civiccommercial space, says
Kenneth Geers, Toronto-based senior research scientist with
cybersecurity company Comodo and nonresident senior fellow at the
Atlantic Councils Cyber Statecraft
The DNC hack and other incidents this year involving
two state election agencies, the SWIFT bank messaging network,
the U.S. National Security Agency and the Moscow bureau of the
New York Times suggest that it is not just
nation-states that should be on alert for state actors.
Everybody has to realize that there is a way in, and
you have to be prepared, says Rishi Bhargava, co-founder
and vice president of marketing at Demisto, a
Cupertino, Californiabased developer of automated
security operations and investigation tools. State actors
have more than financial motivation, and they are on the
offensive, Bhargava says. A direct assault on, say, a
major bank has not been documented, but states are
capable of sophisticated, collaborative attacks, such as
denial-of-service attacks that can disable a website and cause
financial and reputational damage. Its only a
matter of time, he notes.
David Thompson, head of product management at Israel- and
Silicon Valleybased attack detection technology company
LightCyber, points out that cyber advances,
in common with other technological innovations,
democratize over time. If nation-states are at the
top of the pyramid, their capabilities will likely
trickle down to other actors. A proliferation of
attacks could be a serious problem for older network
Barriers to entry get lower over time, says Cedric
Leighton, a Virginia-based consultant whose background
includes Air Force intelligence and the National Security
Agency. He expects companies will be more and more on the
frontlines of cyber war, and they will have to raise
their game because they are not accustomed to a
militarized environment. They could be caught up in
high-level influence operations like those Russia
has carried out in its border conflicts the U.S.
is seen as the biggest prize to gain influence over,
Leighton adds. In the worst case, he says, hostile actors could
gain access to intellectual property or strategic plans and
threaten a companys survivability.
You should have as broad a perspective on the threat
landscape as you can, advises Steve Durbin, managing
director of the nonprofit Information Security Forum: If you
are a multinational corporation, if you do work with government
agencies, you could be a target, or you could be a route into a
third-party target. Really, everybody is in it.
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