Panelists discuss cyber threats, government response

Instead of reactively encrypting data whenever government computers go missing, agencies need to be more proactive in combating computer crime, according to the security firm McAfee.

"If you look at data loss, the only times that you see real strong reporting is when laptops are lost," said Mike Carpenter, McAfee's vice president of federal operations. He spoke with Technology Daily on Thursday at a presentation by McAfee researchers on cross-sector cyber threats. "The answer is not encryption [alone]. Whatever can be encrypted can be cracked."

"As much as [government agencies are] at a disadvantage because they have higher levels of threat coming at them" and a large base of contract employees they can't control, Carpenter said, "they are at an advantage" because of their existing clearance system.

For instance, in October, agencies had to start issuing standard identification cards to employees and contractors who access government buildings and computer systems. The new credentials are the result of a 2004 presidential directive that demands each employee obtain a card by going through a background check and fingerprinting.

"What if they can take that classification to the next level?" Carpenter said. "They need to leverage their assets ... and one of their largest assets is clearances. The ability to have a security risk-management solution is the answer."

Any risk-management strategy needs to combine scanning for vulnerabilities, threat identification and protection, Carpenter added.

The government is not sitting by idly. "They have invested more in security than you see outside of the government sector," even the financial sector, Carpenter said. While an attack on a bank's cyber infrastructure could have large economic ramifications, an attack on a federal system could have mission-critical and life-critical consequences.

In a time of war, "when you put religion, faith and other vectors" behind potential threats -- aside from money -- "they are under more distress," he said.

Human-intensive war-fighting has moved to robotic warfare, Carpenter noted. "Everything is network-centric. You're not just looking for protection of defense but protection of offense," he said. And the large percentage of government computer users who are non-government contractors creates an even greater risk.

Beyond disrupting international warfare, Carpenter added, computer infiltrations can interfere with public health and education, as recent cases of medical identity theft and misuses of a student-loan database have shown.

Craig Schmugar, the McAfee researcher responsible for discovering the "Sasser" and "Mydoom" computer worms, told the audience that the future threat landscape around the world will be dictated by the soon-to-be-released Apple iPhone, Internet telephony and Internet video-sharing, among other increasingly popular Web-based innovations.

The surge in bandwidth brought on by advanced mobile telephone offerings; wider high-speed, wireless Internet access; and municipal Wi-Fi will bring with it mobile "malware" threats, he added. Also in the coming decade, Schmugar expects to see a financially motivated threat in the virtual world of Second Life.

"You'll see Trojans and spam for handhelds," said David Marcus, co-host of the "McAfee AudioParasitics" podcast.

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