If cyberspace itself is now a weapon of mass destruction, how can we protect ourselves from an electronic Armageddon? That’s one of the many disconcerting questions raised by a major new report just published in Europe.
Cyber crime, cyber terrorism and cyber espionage are not just overused buzzwords in the online world but are the next big threats to our security, say the experts. The theater of war, it seems, now includes cyberattacks. Scare-mongering or actual fact? Take a look at the increasing number of summits and reports dedicated to determining the global threat and make your own mind up.
The Belgium-based think-tank Security & Defence Agenda (SDA) has produced a large-scale flagship report based on 80 interviews with senior specialists and 250 experts from around the world and attempts to answer the unanswerable: how to govern cyberspace. The author of the report, Brigitte Grauman, approached this from a global perspective.
"What sets this report apart from others," she says, "is that it provides a snapshot of the latest thinking on cybersecurity from around the world." The report also tackles the thorny issue of how prepared governments and the experts are to deal with a major attack.
How real is the threat?
Here’s some number-crunching: There are 1 million new viruses a year, says McAfee, the Internet security company. Israel alone says it sees a 1,000 attacks a minute. Online fraud, apparently, dwarfs any other kind of fraud. In the report, 38 percent of respondents polled said missile defense is as important as cyber defense, and only a slightly smaller percentage feel it is more so.
Isaac Ben-Israel, a senior Israeli security adviser quoted in the report, compares this threat to a conventional war. "If you want to hit a country, you hit its power and water supplies," he says, "Cyber technology can do this without a single bullet."
The fear of this damage plus the increase in online attacks has made political leaders in the U.S., the European Union and parts of Asia take note. The report by the SDA points out that the U.S. was certainly alarmed enough during George W. Bush's presidency; he tried unsuccessfully to regulate and monitor the Internet under the Patriot Act. The U.S. is far from alone in its concerns and the experts say that every country probably has some method for dealing with online threats.
Defining "cyber war"
The report grapples with the threats becoming an all-out "cyber war," a contentious and heavily debated term because of the images it conjures up and the level at which it makes alarm bells ring. None more so than in the days and months after Osama Bin Laden’s death, when there was much chatter about electronic jihad becoming the new front in terrorism. The sense that a worn-down Al-Qaeda, long using the Internet to radicalize, recruit and provide the training to build weapons, would soon use it for cyber warfare has certainly had authorities in the UK prepare themselves for what they believe is a growth in the threat of cyber terrorism.
So in the middle of potential cyber catastrophe, where is the global regulatory body? Many argue that this is neither pragmatic nor enforceable. In the report some say that a big event, a "cyber 9/11" would galvanize hesitant authorities. But Stewart Baker, formerly with the Department of Homeland Security, says a global body would be "a waste of time."
The other big hurdles this body would face are the conflicting motives of countries around the world. Certainly in Russia, terrorism is a real and constant threat to the regime — but so is social networking. Yet another dilemma for those searching for solutions.
"Governments that don’t like free speech on the Internet are going to put us in the position of choosing between free speech and cybersecurity," says Baker in the SDA report.
A global solution?
Despite the challenges ahead, Grauman argues in the report that a global problem needs a global strategy. "We need to establish a rule book," she says, "a treaty, or global code of conduct and do it step-by-step with the UN or OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) pushing these measures."
In March, thousands of global security experts will gather to brain-storm possible solutions online. It would be an understatement to say they have a difficult path to navigate; the real answers may not come for months or even years. One of the striking issues raised by the report is that for all the soul-searching, privacy is not a priority for all. When Sony was hacked and 77 million clients had their private details exposed, the PlayStation's online service closed down for two weeks. According to the report, young users were more upset they could not play games than they were about the breach of their privacy. It begs the question; would future generations thank us for restricting that which should provide increasing freedom and choice?
It’s not just for the specialists, government leaders and businesses to look for answers. If we’re to avoid the stuff of disaster movies, calamity on an unprecedented scale, nightmare scenarios of countries coming to a complete standstill with national security on its knees, experts say there are little acts we can all do; every one of us can become more aware of our home and work computers, protecting ourselves individually for a greater gain.
One of the founding fathers of the internet Vint Cerf has famously gone so far as to suggest a far more dramatic solution; a massive reboot and starting all over again with greater regulation, a clean slate with Internet 2.
It's a notion so wild that even Hollywood couldn’t dream it up.
You can reach NBC News' Tazeen Ahmad on Twitter or on Facebook.
More on cybersecurity and online threats from msnbc.com: