Cyberspying important to fend off online threats

States need to plan and conduct online monitoring activities to stay informed and ready against cyberattacks, but issues such as national sovereignty pose challenges, say security watchers.

As the world grows increasing reliant on the Internet, there has been a rise of cyberespionage and other forms of online threats. To counter these risks, security watchers point out that online spying will become a common strategy for most and advise governments to beef up their technical expertise and establish political treaties to safeguard against cyberwar.

Ashar Aziz, founder and CEO of security firm FireEye, said that with more sensitive data being digitized and stored on computers, cyberespionage and Web-based attacks such as Stuxnet or Flame will become more prevalent.

As such, countries will need to plan, coordinate and conduct defensive measures to secure their information networks and assets against adversaries, he explained.

Aryeh Goretsky, distinguished researcher at ESET Security, added the rise of such online threats mean that cyberspying has become a necessity in the 21st century. He noted that while the Internet might be a fairly new medium for communications, it is already heavily used by people and this makes it a main area for monitoring cyber threats.

Furthermore, since the Internet is largely unregulated and there are no insurmountable barriers, unlike physical terrains such as land, air or sea, this has empowered both state and non-state actors to utilize cyberspying for their purposes, whether in defense or attack, said Alan Chong.

The associate professor of global information flow politics at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, added: "The Internet has enabled users and recipients to penetrate each other's domains. The spies of tomorrow will not be using tried-and-tested forms of penetration."

Sovereignty, identification are challenges
Goretsky noted though that reason that empowers people and states to conduct cyberspying, in that there are no physical barriers and regulations, is the same reason why such activities are challenging. The ESET executive noted that one of biggest issues is territoriality as national boundaries are not easily demarcated online.

When spying activities traverse the space of an intermediate country, issues such as whether to notify that country and which countries' law applies comes to the fore, he elaborated.

Chong added that it is difficult to ascertain the identity of an online perpetrator, noting that no one can yet determine whether the state actor that conducted a cyberattack on Estonia in 2007 was indeed Russia.

"The problem with cyberspace is that it's not possible to say with absolute certainty who launched the attack. This is the structural mystery behind cyber warfare and cyberespionage," he said.

The associate professor added that there is no "foolproof" way to fend against cyber threats, with one extreme form of defense being going back to a non-digital way of life. However, this is not likely as it compromises the benefits of globalization, he surmised.

Governments can conduct constant monitoring of their critical infrastructure and database though, while keeping portions of national data isolated from the Internet to ensure these are not compromised, he advised.

Goretsky added that countries can prevent cyberwars by stockpiling online weapons and sign mutual treaties outlining the use of such weapons. The terms can include how allies can come to each other's aid in the event of an online attack, he added.


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