Cyberterrorism: Governments, not tech companies, should lead the defense

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In addition to deadly Russian military operations, Ukraine continues to experience cyber-attacks, which officials warn could also spread to US and European targets. So far, private tech companies have played a key role in revealing suspected Russian-backed threats, most notably with Microsoft notifying the White House and Ukrainian officials about new Russian malware just hours before Russian military units entered the country. While the sharing of this information by private companies is necessary and must continue, the public sector must take the lead. This is especially important because national security and the safety of civilians can be at stake.

In addition to government and military targets, the alleged Russian attacks have also targeted banking websites, clearly targeting civilians and causing fear, panic and disruption. In fact, this is cyberterrorism, an emerging phenomenon that will continue to grow as life becomes increasingly digitized and technology – and technological weapons – continue to increase. Cyber ​​terrorism is no less dangerous than traditional physical terrorism and requires the same amount of government effort and investment to combat.

It has become clear over the past year that cyber attacks can be deadly. And many say they already have. In September, for example, an Alabama mother filed a lawsuit blaming the hospital for the death of her daughter, who was born with complications, which she claims was unable to provide adequate care because some of the his computer systems were down in a ransomware attack. While that attack was blamed on a criminal gang seeking to make money rather than a state-sponsored or political group, it nevertheless shows that disrupting networks and data — as Russia has allegedly done in Ukraine — can have deadly consequences. have. Israel also had a close call on a potentially life-threatening cyber-terrorist attack in 2020 when hackers, allegedly backed by Iran, attempted to drastically increase chlorine levels in the drinking water supply, which could have poisoned people or caused a fail-safe, shutting down the system. and leave people without water. Cybersecurity systems detected and stopped the attack; but there is no guarantee they will catch the next try.

Cyberterrorism is still in its infancy and the tools are still quite simple; in fact, the most common type of cyber-attacks Ukraine is now experiencing — known as a distributed denial-of-service attack in which hackers flood servers to shut down the website — are the same type that Russia used against Estonia in 2007, where banks’ websites , government departments, newspapers, businesses and other sites that citizens relied on for online services and information.

We cannot assume that these tools will remain the same; they are likely to become more sophisticated both in their abilities and in execution – a scary prospect indeed. Even scarier, most governments around the world are still unable to stop even these well-known methods and tools of state-sponsored cyber-attacks, let alone the zero-day scenarios and future types of attacks. This must change; more sophisticated and coordinated action by governments is the only way to prevent the threat of cyberterrorism from becoming the equivalent of a 9/11.

Increasingly, state-backed cyber-terrorists are targeting banks, hospitals, food manufacturers and other businesses that, while private, on which the public depends heavily on them for essential services. The lives of citizens, entire economies and the sense of security present in democracies are all at stake here. Relying on private companies and their cybersecurity efforts as the main line of defense against increasing numbers and severity of attacks is no longer sufficient or appropriate.

Governments everywhere, but especially those Western democracies increasingly threatened by sophisticated cyber players like Russia and China, need to step up – and with more than just regulation. While financial services, critical infrastructure and other sectors must adhere to cybersecurity regulations, governments must provide funding and training to ease the burden on them. Governments that have invested heavily in cybersecurity departments in recent years should also be more willing to set up systems to share information with the private sector and go on the offensive against cyber-terrorists if necessary. After all, governments are the only ones allowed to buy offensive cyber-attack tools; the private sector is prohibited from buying and using them, even if they could potentially be needed to stop attacks and save lives.

In Israel, we see the beginnings of an increasing state involvement in the fight against cyberterrorism, with the establishment of a national cyber-directorate in 2017. In addition to meeting regularly with other government and military cybersecurity units, the directorate also collaborates with a number of private companies. on vulnerabilities disclosure and is engaged in hunting threats on behalf of the private sector. As a co-founder of an Israel Defense Forces cybersecurity unit and after more than a decade of private sector experience, I can say that finding and mitigating state-sponsored threats requires professionals with experience in government and public sector cybersecurity. military, something that is lacking in most private companies.

There is also a need for more cyber aid for vulnerable countries that lack resources. Perhaps one of the reasons the attacks on Ukraine haven’t done so much damage, at least so far, is due to the increased cyber aid NATO announced last month it would provide. While such aid can be fragile because countries are careful to guard their knowledge and capabilities, even those of allies, it is becoming increasingly essential. It will no doubt come out of its traditional place behind the scenes and play a more obvious role in diplomacy, especially as cybersecurity is now key to stability and protecting civilian lives.

But there’s still a long way to go if we’re to avoid a scenario where citizens don’t have access to money, health care or drinking water — or worse, when attempts to seek medical care in hospitals are attacked or fill a glass of water from a tap results in death. Governments can’t wait to play defense in the cyber war; they must dictate the terms of how to fight it now. They have to go on the attack.

Reuven Aronashvili is founder and CEO of CYE.

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