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2011 July 11 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Cyberspace Is The Next (and Current) Theater of War

If you thought that cyber warfare was the stuff of science fiction, think again. A number of recent events point to its current reality, and how it will become an increasing presence in the future.

In the name of the new civil defense as well as self-protection, there are steps you can take now to avoid becoming a civilian casualty.

As commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces, President Obama in May signed an executive order laying out guidelines specifying how far military commanders should go in using cyber attacks and cyber espionage against adversaries.

The guidelines deal with matters ranging from planting computer viruses to bringing down another country’s electrical grid. Needless to say, the new Pentagon policy statement also stresses the need for cyber defense, with regard to government networks as well as those of critical private sector industries, including defense contractors, nuclear and other power plants, and the financial sector.

In one of its infamous leaks, WikiLeaks last November revealed that government officials in China oversaw a cyber attack on the U.S. information technology company Google. According to U.S. State Department cables, China’s Politburo tried to sabotage Google’s computer systems. Allegedly, China was angry because Chinese human rights activists had been using Google’s services to communicate with one another.

Chinese officials have repeatedly denied involvement in the attack on Google or other U.S. companies. American officials, in turn, said that the WikiLeaks leaks were harmful to U.S. relations with other countries.

China is among other countries devoting considerable resources in gearing up for cyber warfare, according to an article last year in the British publication The Economist. The others include Russia, North Korea, Iran, and Israel. In an article he wrote last year for the U.S. publication Foreign Affairs, William J. Lynn III, U.S. deputy defense secretary, said “the Pentagon has formally recognized cyberspace as a new domain in warfare ... just as critical to military operations as land, sea, air, and space.”

Meanwhile, much of the combat in cyberspace over the past year remains of the terrorist sort, carried out by rogue groups that appear unconnected to governmental entities. The group that has attracted the most attention, which goes by the name LulzSec, appears to be a small band of computer hackers. It has claimed responsibility for high-profile attacks against the likes of the U.S. Senate, the CIA, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Fox Broadcasting Company and the Public Broadcasting System.

Another major type of maliciousness waged over the Internet is carried out by international crime rings. In June, the CIA broke up several that had frightened more than a million people into forking over a total of several hundred million dollars.

With one scam, fake pop-up ads directed users to a fake Web site promising a free virus scan. Only the virus scan planted viruses instead of getting rid of them. The virus subjected users to repeated pop-up ads saying that their computer was infected with a virus and the only way to kill it was to buy an antivirus program costing $129.

The day may soon be arriving when many large companies feel compelled to pay protection money to “cyber mafia” groups to ensure that their databases are kept safe, worries David Seltzer, a self-described “cyber crimes and criminal defense attorney” (www.cybercrimesdefense.com).

Naturally, consultants have come out of the woodwork offering their security services to companies and individuals alike. In some cases, it can make sense for companies to take advantage of such services if their in-house expertise isn’t adequate.

Internet service providers are also beefing up their protection to subscribers. The largest ISP in the U.S., Comcast, just rolled out its Constant Guard service. This free service supplements the existing free security offerings from Symantec that Comcast subscribers receive.

Constant Guard protects against your PC or network being taken over by a bot, or Web robot, which engages in malicious activity against other computers over the Internet, including shutting down websites through “denial of service” attacks and email phishing attacks.

But individual users still need to be vigilant, which can also help in the larger arena of cyber warfare. The tried-and-true advice still applies: Use reputable anti-virus and anti-spyware software; keep your operating system, web browser, and other software up to date with automatic patches; and be cautious about clicking on links in emails and instant messages. It’s always safer to go to websites directly through your browser by typing in their addresses or by pulling down a favorite or bookmark.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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