Cybergeddon likely to be caused by 'glorious cock-up'

The likelihood of a state-sponsored attack on the Internet is relatively small

Cybergeddon is more likely to be caused by a "glorious cock-up" than a state-sponsored cyber attack, according to Paul Simmonds, co-founder of the Jericho Forum and former CISO of AstraZeneca and ICI.

Speaking at the "Cybergeddon - fact or fiction?" debate at the Imperial War Museum in London, Simmonds said it is more likely that all the DNS route servers will be taken out by a cascade action due to a botched router upgrade than a deliberate attempt by one government to bring down another.

"With any kind of cascade action, it's the law of unintended consequences. The instant you say we're going to take down the Internet - the Internet probably has all your water systems on it, your electricity systems, controls your nuclear reactors," said Simmonds.

"You overload and take down that infrastructure, you will take down the world. So I think people would use that kind of take-down capability at their peril, because you will never confine it to, say, China."

Simmonds added that the frequently-ignored human element of information security is one of the biggest threats facing organisations today, because users will always optimise for utility and not think about risk.

"Often it's not piece of ninja malware cooked up in a basement that will bring down your organisation but a well-meaning employee who made an unfortunate choice and clicked a link in an email," he said.

He also highlighted that 90% of the FTSE 100 have a security team of five people or less, so most large organisations are not getting the intelligence and understanding that they need to protect their data assets.

Professor Fred Piper, Head of Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London, added that cyber security has been slipping down the agenda for many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), because in the current economic climate "survival is enough".

With the advent of more agile software development methods, and the cloud mentality of "just throw it out there and see if it works," the so-called insider threat is greater than ever, according to Simmonds.

Piper pointed out that the spate of denial of service attacks on Estonia in 2007 - purportedly carried out by Russian hackers - proved that entire countries could be shut down by malicious parties using cyber weapons.

"It depends what you mean by Cybergeddon. If Cybergeddon means the destruction of the whole Internet infrastructure, I don't see anybody having any advantage in doing that, because they'll damage themselves as much as they'll damage their opponent," he said.

"However, locally it may be a different story, and Estonia is an example of what could be called a local Cybergeddon."

Hugh Thompson, Chief Security Strategist at Blue Coat Systems, added that the risk of Cybergeddon should not be looked at in isolation but within the wider context of the theatre of war.

"There's probably going to be a set of other agenda items," he said. "I think the Internet really can be one place where war is waged, while it's being waged in other places as well."

Thompson said that using malware to disrupt critical infrastructure could cause a terrible outcome, and that such an attack is possible, given the warning signs over the last few years. However, he said that a more interesting view of what Cybergeddon could be is the total erosion of trust online.

A report released this week by security software firm Trend Micro revealed that some 91% of cyberattacks begin with a spear phishing email, which makes use of information about a target to make attacks more specific and personal.

"I've seen some incredible tools come out of the hacking community in the last year or so that make it possible to personalise one more email at a marginal cost of almost zero," said Thompson.

"So they can take my information from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn - any social networking site - and make the attack personal. That's Cybergeddon," he concluded.

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