Cyberspace 'chaos' is scaring off business

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 November, 2004, 12:00am

Former US security adviser says the corporate world is losing billions because the internet is unsafe

Criminals, hackers and terrorists are making the internet an unsafe place for legitimate users and causing companies billions in lost business, according to a former White House counter-terrorism and cyber security chief.

Richard Clarke, author of Against All Enemies, believes businesses are losing billions of dollars in revenue, lost productivity and sensitive information as 'chaos' engulfs the internet, creating a paradoxical situation in which criminals benefit more than businesses from the convenience of going online.

'I would argue that cyberspace today is more chaotic than it has been at any time since it was created about 10 or 15 years ago,' Mr Clarke said during a visit to Hong Kong last week.

The growing threat from spam, phishing, hacking, worms and viruses was deterring users from taking full advantage of the Net, and companies were losing out.

The problem for banks is two-fold: the US Federal Reserve estimates that US$1.2 billion will be lost this year through phishing, while operating costs remain artificially high as customers shun online banking services in favour of brick-and-mortar branches.

Even simple functions such as e-mail were affected, Mr Clarke said.

'Spam now takes up two thirds of the world's internet [e-mail] traffic. The result is that the e-mail system is no longer reliable, so people are unwilling to use the e-mail system as a means of doing business,' he said.

By contrast, terrorists were becoming adept at communicating over the internet. Sharing user names and passwords for web-based e-mail sites such as Yahoo, terrorists communicated with each other by leaving messages in draft folders rather than risking sending messages from one account to another, Mr Clarke said.

'This is a very sophisticated use of the internet to communicate - reliable, secure and free,' he said.

Mr Clarke has remained in the headlines since resigning as US President George W. Bush's top cyberspace official last year, thanks in large part to the publication of his book, in which he criticised what he saw as gross failings in the Bush administration's security and anti-terrorism policies.

During his watch as National Co-ordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counter-Terrorism under former president Bill Clinton, Mr Clarke warned of a 'digital Pearl Harbour', in which criminals could disrupt and shut down US infrastructure, telecommunications networks and defence command control systems unless there was a greater effort to beef up security in cyberspace.

But Mr Clarke, in his speech last week, suggested that regular hackers involved in industrial espionage and denial-of-service attacks posed a more imminent threat in cyberspace than terrorists.

'Terrorists do [conduct] reconnaissance online, but they have not yet, as far as I know, used cyberspace to attack systems or to bring down systems - and other people have. So even if all the terrorists go away, we would still have a cyber security problem,' he said.

'Terrorists tend to like a lot of body bags. They have set for themselves through the 9/11 attacks a new barrier, a new standard. While you could theoretically cause people to die through a cyber attack, you are not going to cause hundreds of people to die. As long as they want to terrorise us through killing people, they are going to stay away from cyber attacks because they don't have that effect.'

Meanwhile, Mr Clarke warned companies to beware of the teenage hacker.

'Don't think that because a kid is 16 years old and can't get a date that he can't do real damage on the internet,' he said.

'Even United States nuclear weapons laboratories - at Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia - have been victims of successful industrial espionage.'

Mr Clarke's shift in focus from counter-terrorism to commercial interests since leaving government is probably down to the professional hat he now wears: as chairman of Good Harbor Consulting he serves as an independent adviser to IT security giant Symantec.

But old habits die hard, and Mr Clarke seemed most comfortable on subjects dating back to his public service days. Asked for his views on the latest Osama bin Laden tape, he said: 'Osama bin Laden feels left out,' and suggested that Bin Laden may be plagiarising his verbal attacks from other sources.

'Everything that Michael Moore says in the movie Fahrenheit 9/11, Osama Bin Laden says in the videotape,' he said.

'Even if all the terrorists go away, we would still have a cyber security problem'
Richard Clarke
Former White House counter-terrorism and cyber security chief