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Stop calling it a cyber war, you dummy

Dec 16, 20103 mins
Data and Information Security

Feathers ruffled over yesterday’s post on WikiLeaks-inspired attacks and whether they signal the big cyber war we’ve been warned about.

I noted that we can argue until we’re blue in the face about whether it’s appropriate to call this a war, but that it’s pretty clear we’ve seen something unprecedented.

Not true, some readers told me.

Marc Sachs, executive director, national security and cyber policy at Verizon Communications, posted the following on my Facebook wall:

“Oh for crying out loud. This is not new. Where was the reporter during the 1999/2000 Israel vs Palestine or the 2001 China vs USA “hacker wars”? Engaging civilians in a game of click-and-DoS is not a cyber war. It’s vandalism, protesting, whatever…but not a war.”

Fair point. I’ve known Marc for a long time and respect him greatly. And his rebuke of the “cyber war” notion captures the other side of this story quite well.

He’s not the first one to compare massive DDoS attacks to vandalism and bullying as opposed to war.

Gadi Evron, a Tel Aviv-based security researcher who was brought in to help Estonia recover from a massive attack a few years ago, has called this sort of DDoS wave a cyber riot more than a cyber war.

But he also noted that opposing governments can make political hay out of attacks they may have nothing to do with. In this case, Russia.

Evron made the point in this exchange:

CSO: You’ve described the Estonian incident as a cyber riot rather than a case of nation-sponsored cyber terrorism. Do you think all the speculation about nation-sponsored attacks was overblown?

Evron: It was a riot because the online populace was energized to be the foot soldier. It was an organized attack, but whether by some ad-hoc group of individuals or not, I cannot say based on the technical data alone. Whether it was Russia or not, [the country] knew how to play the political game afterwards and achieved a high level of deterrence against the former Eastern-block countries at virtually no cost.

In the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter what we call this thing. The bottom line is that DDoS attacks have become stupidly easy for anyone to launch and companies need a better strategy to deal with it. So do the governments of the world.

Estonia is actually a good case study in how a country can successfully bounce back.

–Bill Brenner