Experts warn of hacking 'cold war'

Experts warn of hacking 'cold war'

International conflicts will be taken to the internet

Government groups around the world are becoming increasingly involved in efforts to launch and defend against web-based attacks, security experts warn.

A new report from McAfee, conducted in association with several law enforcement and security research bodies, claims that a new 'cold war' is taking place on the internet.

The security firm cited recent attacks on Estonian government sites, and allegations of web attacks conducted by China, as examples of how cyber-attacks could take a part in global conflicts.

"The nature of the equaliser that is the internet has dawned on people," said Dave Marcus, security research and communications manager at McAfee. "It is dawning on a lot of places that maybe they don't need a mole some place."

Marcus said that levels of preparedness within governments varies greatly.

While developed countries such as the US have extensive security systems in place, many developing nations lack the safeguards that wealthier governments, and even some large enterprises, may have in place.

"Many countries are ill-prepared to deal with a large concentrated [cyber-attack]," said Marcus.

"When you have a determined adversary combined with a [poor security] infrastructure, you have the potential for devastation."

Even the most prepared governments, however, can still fall victim. Marcus said that targeted attacks based on social engineering could emerge as the favourite form of cyber-warfare.

"If you [target] a federal agency, you can be very successful targeting just 10 or 12 people at that agency," said Marcus. "I think that is the way things wi ll go."

Marcus also downplayed the notion that a cyber-attack could be used to cripple an entire country.

Redundancies ranging from backup systems to telephone lines and even the telegraph can allow governments to continue operations even if the entire computer infrastructure is disabled.

Instead, Marcus predicted that the attacks will focus more on financial gain, propaganda and misinformation designed to annoy a population rather than bring life grinding to a halt.

"I have never subscribed to the 'you can take out the entire internet' thought. I just do not think it will be that devastating," he said.

"I can see more along the lines of state-sponsored malware going after banks or financial institutions."