CybersecurityCybersecurity named one of top five global threats

Published 10 February 2011

World leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos named cyber security as one of the top five global risks in its 2011 report; the report identifies four key areas that pose global risks: cyber theft, cyber espionage, cyber war, and cyber terrorism; observers worry that the Stuxnet virus, which damaged Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, may have sparked a cyber arms race and are particularly concerned about the lack of established international norms surrounding these weapons; the report fears that cyber attacks on nations could lead to conventional attacks

The world’s top business leaders, politicians, and policy advisers are growing increasingly concerned over cyber security threats, as evidenced by its prominence on the agenda at the recently concluded World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.

Cybersecurity landed on the WEF’s list of top five global risks to watch in its 2011 report.

The WEF writes that while awareness of cyber threats have grown, “the complexity of cyber security issues is still not well understood and its risks could be underestimated.”

The report identifies four key areas that pose global risks: cyber theft, cyber espionage, cyber war, and cyber terrorism.

Given the increasing militarization of cyber space, the interconnectedness of cyber espionage, cyber war, and cyber terrorism will be a particular challenge as no international norms have been developed.

Without established protocols like deterrence or mutually assured destruction with nuclear weapons, cyber threats will continue to confound world leaders.

Joseph Menn writes in a Financial Times report, “There are still no international rules for the conduct of offensive cyber operations, no universal principles for what would trigger world opprobrium. Even if global norms were agreed, they would be subject to violation, especially given the difficulty in definitive attribution of attacks.”

The WEF report warns of the potential of a cyber attack to trigger conventional responses. “While an open war in cyber space is possible, experts indicate that the interplay between cyber war and physical war poses a more likely risk for society, with aggression online not only serving but also potentially provoking conventional attacks.”

Of particular interest to observers is how leaders will react to the Stuxnet virus, which is widely believed to have been developed by the United States and Israel to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.

The computer virus is unique in that it is the first instance that a nation has developed a cyber weapon, and it is the first time a virus has been used to cause physical damage to infrastructure.

Some experts fear that the virus has launched a cyber arms race.

Several nations including the United States and Estonia have already begun to develop cyber warfare capabilities.

Estonia recently launched the first all-volunteer cyber army under military command, while in 2009, the United States stood up Cyber Command, a combatant command dedicated to defending the military’s networks as well as conducting offensive operations.

As more nations move to secure themselves against growing cyber threats, many of the internet’s original creators and advocates fear increasing regulation and oversight that could lead to a loss of civil liberties.

Richard Stiennon, author of a book on cyber war, says that, “Any government reaction to threats leads to legislation and more controls and there’s no way to rein that in.”