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Private Sector Best Defense Against Cyberattacks, White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Says

By Matthew Harwood

Private sector vigilance is the best protection against the sort of cyberattacks discovered in January that struck Google and other companies, the White House's cyberchief told a conference yesterday.

Speaking at the CSO Perspectives 2010 conference, White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt told attendees that private sector companies must ultimately remain responsible for protecting their own networks, reports ComputerWorld.com.

[Schmidt] believes the best defense remains in the hands of the private sector.

"You guys have been carrying the water," Schmidt told attendees at CSO Perspectives 2010 Tuesday. The government can do a lot to improve the nation's cyber defenses. But ultimately, he said, the key to warding off attacks like the one Google experienced remains private-sector vigilance.

Schmidt also continued to downplay talk of "cybergeddon," or the idea that an adversary could lauch a digital Pearl Harbor against the United States. As far back as 2003, Schmidt told Wired magazine that cyberattacks are "weapons of mass disruption," noting "Is it possible that we could have a catastrophic failure on a regional basis? Absolutely. Could we see that on a universal basis? That likelihood has been reduced significantly."

(For more on online threats to company networks, read Assistant Editor Joseph Straw's "Yet Another Cyber 'Wake-up Call'" from this month's Security Management magazine.)

Nearly seven years later his tune hasn't changed much. Last month, Schmidt told Wired.com's Threat Level blog matter of factly, "There is no cyberwar.”

His stance, however, directly contradicts the former Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell. Only days before Schmidt's conversation with Wired, McConnell wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post stating, "The United States is fighting a cyber-war today, and we are losing. It's that simple."

This isn't to say Scmidt believes cybersecurity isn't a real threat, he does. But as ComputerWorld.com reports, the threats aren't a return to global confrontation between nation-states.

"As far as he's concerned, this isn't an online version of East against West or Allies against Axis," the technology Web site reports. "What we're seeing, he believes, is more about online riots and hacktivism, where a ragtag band of malcontents express their displeasure over government policy by launching distributed denial-of-service attacks like of the sort that pounded the networks of Estonia in 2007."

And while Schmidt disagrees with the warfare metaphors used to describe online threats, that didn't stop Computerworld.com from using their own military metaphor to excite their readership.

"This is a battle every IT security professional must fight from the foxholes," the Web site proclaimed.


♦ Photo of White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt and President Barack Obama by White House/WikiMediaCommons

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