International cyber spying rated as number one threat for 2008

About 120 countries now engaged in Web espionage

A study was released yesterday warning of a rise in international cyber spying, labelling it the single biggest threat to the enterprise in 2008.

The annual McAfee Virtual Criminology Report examines emerging global cyber security trends, with imput from NATO, the FBI, SOCA and experts from leading industry groups and universities.

It claims governments across the globe are using the Internet for cyber spying and cyber attacks. This claim comes as a surprise as many security vendors have been shy about admitting to the prevalence of cyber spying by governments.

Despite all the hype about the need to protect critical infrastructure which was dominating headlines about six years ago, the issue has subsided in recent years with malware and phishing attacks creating havoc for the financial services industry.

The report said cyber targets include critical national infrastructure network systems such as electricity, air traffic control, financial markets and government computer networks

McAfee estimates 120 countries are now using the Internet for Web espionage operations.

McAfee senior vice president of product development, Jeff Green, said many cyber attacks originate from China.

Green said the Chinese government has publicly stated that it is pursuing activities in cyber espionage.

He said cyber assaults have become more sophisticated in their nature, designed to specifically slip under the radar of government cyber defenses.

"Attacks have progressed from initial curiosity probes to well-funded and well-organized operations for political, military, economic and technical espionage," Green warned.

"Cybercrime is now a global issue. It has evolved significantly and is no longer just a threat to industry and individuals but increasingly to national security.

"We're seeing emerging threats from increasingly sophisticated groups attacking organisations around the world. Technology is only part of the solution, and over the next five years we will start to see international governments take action."

David Vaile, executive director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the University of NSW, said it is difficult to measure cyber spying because there are so many denials.

But he said the recent cyber war in Estonia is proof of the growth in Web espionage.

The attack took the form of coordinated mass requests for information and spam e-mail which slowed down key Web sites so they did not function or crashed due to the attacks. Web sites were crippled across the country and while Russian hackers were accused of being involved in the attacks, analysis of the malicious traffic showed computers from the US, Canada, Brazil and Vietnam were used.

The cyber war was the result of a political disagreement about a Soviet war memorial the Estonian government is seeking to relocate.

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Sandra Rossi

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