Why U.S. Slow Down Response to Cyber Threats

The phrase “a day late and a dollar short” is spot on when describing the measures that United States government takes to fight the cyberespionage. The inability to protect the country from foreign cyber attacks left the nation’s critical infrastructure very vulnerable.

The former director of National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Michael Hayden is well aware of the threats that are currently posing the biggest danger to the security of the nation. He shared his thoughts concerning new methods and tactics that are used to maintain national security at the Kaspersky Lab Government Cybersecurity Forum. M. Hayden claimed that the cyber attacks themselves don’t surprise him because US has a long history of fighting against organized groups, state-sponsored attackers or military units that use cyberespionage to damage networks or ongoing operations. The things that worry him are the goals and methods which are used because they are yet to be discovered. That is the main reason why this time the US government was caught unprepared.

Michael Hayden was in charge of the NSA when he witnessed the changes in espionage. At that time, the traditional methods used by the nation’s adversaries were substituted by cyberespionage. Unfortunately, US authorities were unable to adapt to the changing situation. According to M. Hayden the lack of cooperation between parts of the government was the reason why these changes did so much damage to national security.

Even though the situation looks uncertain M. Hayden is optimistic as he is confident that US still has the best minds. Unfortunately, this potential can not be used as there is lack of policy and legal guidance from the government. This leaves General Alexander, the chief of United States Cyber Command, with hands tied behind his back. “The reason is that you and I haven’t decided as a country what we want our government to do to keep us safe in this domain,” M.Hayden concluded.

The sophisticated ‘worm’ called Stuxnet was the sign that a new era has started, and new methods and tactics are needed to preserve safety. This particular virus was used to destroy centrifuges in Natanz thus slowing the Iranian nuclear program. ”Given my background as director of NSA, I view crashing a thousand centrifuges at Natanz as an unalloyed good,” M. Hayden said. This attack showed how a weapon comprised only of ones and zeros can destroy infrastructure of great importance and maintain peace. Although the cyber attacks against energy companies, utilities and other infrastructure started a long time ago, but until recently they couldn’t do any real damage. However with the introduction of new more complex methods and tactics those objects became very vulnerable. That’s why we are witnessing a change in priorities concerning safety.

M.Hayden is very impressed by the amount of damage a program can make to physical objects. He even compared the striking power of cyber attack to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “This is very different in terms of scale, but this has the kind of flavor of August 1945. This is a new category of weapon, and in a sense, that kind of use sort of legitimates its use by other actors,” he said.

Speaking about the dangers that cyberespionage pose to the western countries, M. Hayden singles out China as the biggest threat. The attackers from this Asian giant, both military and civil, have different aims than the rivals from the west. Chinese steal secrets simply for the enrichment of private sector, and this is nothing new, this policy has been used for a long time.

“Not long ago US was stealing a lot of data from its adversaries,” M.Hayden confessed, and he would like to think that US was the best in this field. Although according to him they did this for completely different reasons than, for example, the chinese counterparts: “We didn’t steal stuff to make you rich, we stole stuff to keep you safe.”

Hayden currently works for The Chertoff Group, but he still stays in touch with former colleagues. He was told by one of them that at the moment, a discussion is underway about the concept of hacking back. “This could lead to interesting solutions,” M. Hayden said. He also compared current situation in the field of cyberespionage with the climate on the high seas in the 19th century.

“The last time the government was late to need, in the 19th century, in the last great era of globalization, we issued letters of marque and reprisal,” M. Hayden said.

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