Wired‘s Ryan Singel has given a read to Cyberwar, the new cybersecurity book by Richard Clarke and Robert Knake. (I picked out a potential example of actual cyberwarfare in a Glenn Reynolds review of the book last week.)
Singel—a journalist who has been a sophisticated reporter of computer security issues for years now—is not impressed with the book or the reviews it has gotten. In his review, Richard Clarke’s Cyberwar: File Under Fiction, he writes:
So much of Clarke’s evidence is either easily debunked with a Google search, or so defies common sense, that you’d think reviewers of the book would dismiss it outright. Instead, they seem content to quote the book liberally and accept his premise that cyberwar could flatten the United States, and no one in power cares at all. Of course, the debunking would be easier if the book had footnotes or endnotes, but neither are included — Revelation doesn’t need sources.
It’s brief enough, and refreshing enough. I say read the whole thing.
Sober assessments of computer, network, and data security are far less interesting than the thrillers that would drive Washington policymakers to overreact. This report in Government Computer News, for example, relates the findings of a recent Symantec report on threats to government systems and gives reason to settle down about cyberthreats from China.
China was the top country of origin for attacks against the government sector in 2009, accounting for 14 percent of the total, but too much should not be read into that statistic. The apparent country of origin says little about who actually is behind an attack, said Dean Turner, director of Symantec’s Global Intelligence Network.
China’s ranking is due primarily to the large number of computers in the country, Turner said. Less than a quarter of attacks originating in China were directed at government targets, while more than 48 percent of attacks from Brazil — No. 3 on the hit list — were directed at government. This makes it unlikely that China is specifically targeting government systems.
Compromised computers that are the apparent source of attacks often are controlled from elsewhere, and an attack apparently emanating from China does not necessarily mean that the Chinese government, or even anyone in China, is behind it. Attribution of attacks is notoriously difficult, and statistics do not necessarily indicate that the United States is under cyberattack by China. In fact, the United States ranked second in origin of government attacks in 2009, accounting for 11 percent.
(Symantec is a vendor to governments, so naturally prone to threat inflation itself. GCN reporter William Jackson deserves credit for the sobriety of the story.)
Cybersecurity-related fearmongering could drive unnecessary dischord between the United States and China, leading to actual conflict where none is warranted. Singel again:
[A]rtists of exaggeration . . . seem to think spinning tall tales is the only way to make bureaucracies move in the right direction. But yelling ‘Cyberwar’ in a crowded internet is not without consequence. Not only does it promote unnecessary fear, it feeds the forces of parochial nationalism and militarism — undermining a communications system that has arguably done more to connect the world’s citizens than the last 50 years of diplomacy.