Cyberspace has become a battleground in warfare. There are no body counts, no bombs and no horrifying images to rally a nation in defense, but the attacks launched from unfriendly countries against computer systems can be devastating and pose a threat to U.S. security.
In the modern world of interconnected computer systems, hackers at a computer keyboard in a hostile nation can target not just military operations but civilian systems that control electric grids, water plants, transportation and financial networks that could inflict substantial economic loss. And the threat is real, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned in remarks to the Business Executives for National Security. Recent cyberattacks disabled websites of several U.S. banks.
We know of specific instances where intruders have successfully gained access to these control systems, he said. We also know that they are seeking to create advanced tools to attack these systems and cause panic and destruction, and even the loss of life.
He cited a July attack against Saudi Arabias state oil company Aramaco using a virus called Shamoon that wiped out data on 30,000 computers by replacing files with the image of a burning U.S. flag. A similar attack was launched against a Qatari natural gas producer, RasGas.
While Secretary Panetta avoided a direct link to Iran, he told the business group that Iran has undertaken a concerted effort to use cyberspace to its advantage.
However, other unidentified officials said the attacks are believed to have originated in Tehran.
Secretary Panetta sent a message to Iran and others considering cyberattacks: Potential aggressors should be aware that the United States has the capacity to locate them and hold them accountable for actions that harm America or its interests.
He said the Defense Department is spending $3 billion a year to improve cybersecurity, but it does not monitor personal computers or provide security for private or commercial networks. Legislation before Congress would require minimum voluntary cybersecurity standards for critical private sector cybernetworks such as water treatment plants and the electric grid. The proposal has met with opposition from businesses concerned about cost and those fearing an invasion of privacy and violations of civil liberties.
Secretary Panetta decribed the recent attacks as a pre-9-11 moment, a warning that the attackers are plotting. It calls for a more cooperative response by government and private industry to develop ways to share information and to protect against cyberthreats.