Take cyberthreats seriously, says counter-terrorism expert

Former Bush administration official says government's need for validation of threats could slow any response

LAS VEGAS --Warnings about emerging cyberthreats shouldn't be treated with the same skepticism that many government officials showed toward the alarms sounded prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, warned a leading counter-terrorism at the BlackHat security conference here Wednesday.

Though many security experts agree that future conflicts will likely be fought in cyberspace, military and government officials have shown a hesitancy to act until they see a validation of the threats, said Cofer Black, former director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center.

Black who played a key counter-terrorism role during the first term of the George W. Bush administration, said he was one of those who warned of a likely attack on American soil one month before the 2011 attacks.

Though the U.S. had gathered a substantial amount of intelligence suggesting that something major was imminent, it was difficult getting those in power to act without some kind of validation, Black said.

"People say 'were you surprised [by the Sept. 11 terror attacks]'," Black said. "I can tell that neither myself nor my people in counter terrorism were surprised at all."

Cybersecurity professionals are likely to run into the same issues today, Black said.

"The demand for validation of threats will come into your world," Black told the audience of security experts. And those demands will delay a quick response, he said.

"That is the issue you are going to face," he said.

Going forward, cyberspace will be the primary realm used by nations and terrorists to engage with enemies, Black said.

Last year's Stuxnet attacks against Iran's nuclear infrastructure are indicative of how cyberattacks are evolving. "Stuxnet is the Rubicon of our future," said Black who is now head of Total Intelligence Solutions, a subsidiary of Blackwater Worlwide.

Stuxnet was among the first cyberattacks that morphed into the physical destruction of a national resource. "This is huge. What is your response to something like this," he said.

The U.S. Department of Defense has said that cyberattacks that target physical infrastructure could merit a kinetic or physical response, he said.

The challenge will be to get decision makers in government to help formulate a response, he said. The escalatory nature of such threats is often not understood or appreciated until they are validated.

"The decision makers hear it but they don't believe it," Black said,

"Cyber will be a key element of future conflict. It is fraught with danger and confusion," he added.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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