Black Hat puts 'offense' on its cyber agenda

Stuxnet worm helps to bring into the open the offensive capability of cyber weapons, experts say

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The ability of the Stuxnet worm to damage Iran's nuclear complex demonstrated, in a very public way, the capabilities of cyber weapons. That was not lost on the program team of the Black Hat conference, or its founder, Jeff Moss.

Moss, a security consultant who was appointed in 2009 to serve on the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security Advisory Council, said some experts call Stuxnet the "first targeted cyber weapon attack," a declaration he takes issue with.

"I don't believe it is the first one - I think it is the first public one," said Moss. "I think it's the first one that we all get to talk about out loud."

Discussions about techniques that are used to mount offensive attacks are also becoming increasingly public, at least at the Black Hat conference held this week at a hotel two Metro stops from the Pentagon.

The conference has specific tracks that look at offensive cyberwar capabilities, which are broadly called "irregular tactics" and "Web skirmishes."

Moss said Black Hat added such tracks at the latest conference "for people who legitimately perform offense."

Sessions about offense have long been part of Black Hat conferences, Moss pointed out, but previously the subjects focused on using such tactics to test defenses. "Now (offense) has its own rules," he added.

Meanwhile, Stuxnet is adding to a growing reference library of publicly disclosed cyberattacks, such as an intrusion into Google systems last year that was reportedly linked to China .

Moss believes the public disclosure of these attacks is elevating the role chief security officers, who now have tangible incidents to use as evidence in explaining IT risks to CIOs and CEOs.

But much remains unsettled.

When Stuxnet sent some of Iran's uranium enrichment centrifuges spinning out of control, the attack served to broadly illustrate the vulnerability of control systems, such as those used in various parts of the world's electric grid.

Franklin Kramer, a former assistant secretary of defense in President Clinton's administration, said a cyberwar won't be limited to any one domain, and government will need a menu of responses to cyber threats.

The first response level could be diplomatic, and the second economic, said Kramer. A third level may involve a cyber or "kinetic" response, military-speak for possible military action.

Kramer indicated that military action in response to a cyber-attack can't be ruled out. To illustrate his point, he cited the 1989 intervention by the U.S. in Panama and arrest of country's leader at the time, Manuel Noriega, who was then jailed on drug, racketeering and other charges.

In Panama, "the United States used military force to support what was really, for the most part, a law enforcement activity," said Kramer.

Kramer called for more collaboration on the issues raised by cyber threats.

Among the things policy makers will have to look at is whether the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission should impose a requirement on companies to disclose their cyber problems and possible solutions, which could raise the level of awareness about the threat. "I think there is a lot to be said for that," said Kramer.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov , or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com .

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

This story, "Black Hat puts 'offense' on its cyber agenda" was originally published by Computerworld.

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