Britain's defences down against cyber-warriors

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Britain has left itself open to an electronic attack on the computer systems which now control every aspect of our lives, a written answer to the House of Lords revealed on Monday.

In contrast, the United States has recognised the problem of "Information warfare" (IW). A report to the US government obtained by The Independent has recommended the creation of a national "focal point" to coordinate information-warfare defence, which it estimates will cost $3.1bn (pounds 1.9bn) over the next five years.

Lord Kennet asked the British Government whether it disagreed with the conclusions of the US report. Earl Howe replied that the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Trade and Industry were each looking at the problem, but indicated there was no co-ordination between them.

"Within the Ministry of Defence, systems are designed with features to reduce the possibility of a successful attack," he said. "It would not be appropriate to comment on the details of these security features, nor on the resources expended in developing such designs".

However, the US report recognises that it is not just military computer systems, but the entire information structure of the state which could be attacked. It says the US could face a "national security disaster" because it is too dependent on computers which are increasingly vulnerable to a paralysing information warfare attack.

In an internal letter dated 21 November, the chairman of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Information Warfare, Duane P Andrews, said there is a need for "extraordinary action" to reduce the Defense Department's vulnerability to information attack which could paralyse or confuse its computer systems; for a new focal point for all information warfare activity; and that the Pentagon had ignored two previous studies which had made similar recommendations.

The report, entitled "Information Warfare - Defense" says: "there is a need for extraordinary action to deal with the present and emerging challenges of defending against possible information-warfare attacks on facilities, information systems, and networks of the United States which would seriously affect the ability of the Department of Defense to carry out its assigned missions and functions.

The report highlights more than 50 measures needed "to better prepare the Department for this new form of warfare". This, it says, would begin with "identification of an accountable focal point within the Department for all IW activities", and end with "the allocation or reallocation of approximately $3 billion over the next five years".

For some years, strategists have recognised that modern, information- based societies are becoming ever more dependent on computers which now control all aspects of finance and the economy, all transport systems, telecommunications, the media and broadcasting, and power supplies, to name the most obvious.

Another US study recently pointed out that Savannah, Georgia, the port through which the US Central Command would deploy to a war zone elsewhere in the world, could be paralysed by an information warfare attack on just one building, which contains the computers controlling the traffic system, communications and electric power system.

The report points out that all current US military doctrine assumes information superiority.

"The reality is that the vulnerability of the Department of Defense - and of the nation - to offensive information warfare attack is largely a self-created problem.

"Program by program, economic sector by economic sector, we have based critical functions on inadequately-protected telecomputing services. In aggregate, we have created a target-rich environment and the US industry has sold globally much of the generic technology that can be used to strike these targets."

Although war has always been based on deception, as Sun Tzu wrote in the 4th century BC, modern dependence on computers multiplies the opportunity to mislead and to deceive, as well as to merely frustrate decision makers.

The report uses graphics to explain how information warfare is fundamentally different from traditional warfare.The technology is simple, adversaries can remain anonymous, the law is uncertain and it is also uncertain whether an information attack is an act of crime or of war. It is estimated that an opponent might use tactical information warfare against US forces in the field by 2005.

The Russians have devoted great attention to information warfare - especially attack with and defence against computer viruses - since about 1991.

The present Defence Minister, Igor Rodionov, had responsibility for an information warfare research cell when he commanded the General Staff Academy.