Waning Hope?

By Sebastian Sprenger / April 9, 2009 at 5:00 AM

Ever since cyberspace became a major concern for the Defense Department, figuring out who exactly is behind attacks against U.S. networks has largely remained an unsolved problem, according to defense officials. So tangled is the Internet, and so manifold the worldwide laws governing its use, that sophisticated attackers seem to have no problem concealing their tracks.

Pinpointing the origin of cyberattacks to somewhere and someone in China or Russia is usually as far as officials will go when discussing the issue in public.

In practice, this means cyberspace is still a domain that "favors the attacker," as they say in the military.

The implications of not knowing who U.S. cyber warriors are fighting are enormous, and experts at the National Security Agency and elsewhere at DOD presumably are working feverishly to find solutions.

But Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an old hand at cyber issues, this week suggested U.S. officials may just have to live with the anonymity of cyber attackers.

In a briefing about fiscal year 2010 budget decisions on Monday, Cartwright made the point that key pieces of information associated with conventional warfare (identity and origin of the attacker) are notably absent in today's conflicts -- cyber or otherwise.

"((H))eretofore, conventional warfare was: I know your home address, I know exactly who we're fighting, and we know exactly where. And the problem is, that's not the case anymore in cyber warfare and weapons of mass destruction, because there are venues without attribution that we have to deal with as we move to the future."

A senior defense official tells us the general's comment was not meant to signal officials have given up hope, and work continues on attribution techniques. But, the official said, the problem remains "extremely difficult."

Of course, any public comment from DOD that reliable cyber attack attribution cannot be achieved would be seen as an invitation to cyber intruders. Besides, at least one senior cyber warrior has said the Internet's anonymity could, in fact, sometimes come in handy for U.S. forces.