US bolsters defences against cyber threats

Tue, Feb 5, 2013, 00:00

In a further bolstering of America’s capacity to wage “cyber war”, the Obama administration has been given powers to launch a pre-emptive strike if there is credible evidence of an attack from overseas.

Cyber warfare has opened a new front for the US government, military and intelligence agencies, and new rules being set by government beef up its cyber arsenal and dictate how it can defend itself or retaliate against threats.

A “secret legal review” has just concluded that the US government can launch a first-strike cyber attack against overseas threats if the country is required to defend itself.

The Pentagon has set up a Cyber Command to monitor emerging threats against US technological infrastructure.

The threshold for a pre-emptive “cyber” strike is high; the US must have credible advance knowledge of an overseas threat to computer systems or the lives of citizens.

“Every other military force we have – the army, the navy, the air force – all have a defensive role against conventional weapons so it would be strange for Cyber Command not to have a defensive role,” said Jim Lewis, a cyber security expert at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington DC.

Congress was unable to pass legislation last year protecting the US against cyber attack so the administration has stepped in to beef up its defences. Use of the weapons so far have been restrained given the president’s concerns that a US cyber attack could be used as justification for a retaliatory strike on the US.

Cyber warfare has become a hot topic in the US, following reports that Chinese hackers infiltrated the computer systems of the New York Times and Washington Post newspapers and accessed the emails of reporters and other employees to find the sources for damaging stories about China’s political leaders.

Mr Obama has approved the use of cyber weapons only once in his presidency when he signed off on “cyber sabotage” attacks to damage Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities in 2010.

The “Stuxnet” computer code is said to have been created by the US and Israel to attack centrifuges in Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant.

The FBI is investigating the leaking of details revealing the Obama administration’s role in the attack and other national security secrets to New York Times journalist David Sanger for his book, Confront and Conceal, published last year.