US military chief proposes pre-emptive strikes against cyber threats
US defense secretary sets out his cyber security strategy.
The US military could take pre-emptive action if it detects an imminent threat of cyber attack, US defense secretary Leon Panetta has warned.
Billed by US officials as the first major policy speech on cyber security by a defense secretary, Panetta said under-investment by America's private sector and political gridlock in Washington had stymied cyber security legislation. He said a presidential executive order was being considered "while we wait for Congress to act."
Addressing a gathering of business leaders in New York, Panetta warned that unnamed foreign actors were targeting computer control systems that operate chemical, electricity and water plants and those that guide transportation.
Few companies have invested in even basic cyber security.
"We know of specific instances where intruders have successfully gained access to these control systems. We also know they are seeking to create advanced tools to attack these systems and cause panic, and destruction, and even the loss of life," Panetta said.
Aggressors could derail passenger trains, contaminate the water supply or shut down the power grid in much of the country, he said.
Still, he cautioned the gathering of the Business Executives for National Security that although awareness of the threat in America's private sector had grown, "the reality is that too few companies have invested in even basic cyber security."
To underscore the degree of concern, Panetta pointed to the August cyber attack on Saudi Arabian state oil company, ARAMCO, blamed on the "Shamoon" virus, and a similar one days later that struck Qatar's natural gas firm, Rasgas.
"All told, the Shamoon virus was probably the most destructive attack that the private sector has seen to date," he said.
Panetta called the "Shamoon" virus sophisticated and noted that in Saudi Arabia it replaced crucial system files with an image of a burning US flag.
"More than 30,000 computers that it infected (at ARAMCO) were rendered useless, and had to be replaced," he said.
He also pointed to recent denial-of-service attacks on major US banks, which delayed or disrupted services on customer websites.
One US official, briefing reporters before the speech on condition of anonymity, said the United States knew who carried out the attacks cited in Panetta's speech, but declined to disclose that information.