A panel of enterprise security executives has been debating the notion of cyber warfare at the 2011 RSA Conference in San Franciso.
Executives and engineers from Verizon Business, AT&T, Invincea and the US Navy discussed the elements that constitute an act of online 'warfare', and how such actions could shape future conflicts.
The panellists noted that there should be a distinction between cyber warfare and civilian-fuelled actions such as the 2007 attacks on sites in Estonia, which were largely symbolic and little more than an annoyance.
"Estonia was a protest, really," said Dorothy Denning, a distinguished professor of defence analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School.
Members of the panel struggled to reach agreement on what could be considered an act of cyber war.
AT&T Labs research leader Bill Cheswick suggested that, while the definition remains open, large-scale attacks on cyber infrastructure causing mass power failures could be considered acts of war.
Other members of the panel, such as Invincea chief executive Anup Ghosh, wondered whether the term 'cyber warfare' should be applied at all.
"When we get attacked by China, is it the government of China or a loose coalition of people? A lot of people feel that, unless it is a declared action by a nation-state government, it is not war," he said.
The panel also discussed how governments can respond to such attacks, in particular how to defend themselves and develop offensive capabilities of their own.
Cheswick highlighted one method of defence that poses a challenging and intriguing question for the public.
"If I'm running an offensive warfare system, I want to have botnets at my disposal," he said. "How do the good guys get botnets? Nobody's answering that. "
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