As the only person to ever head both the US National Security Agency and the US Central Intelligence Agency, retired Air Force General Michael V. Hayden has a lot of experience in seeing around corners. He’s now a global security consultant, helping companies and governments to protect themselves against cyber threats and other dangers. Last week, Hayden, also a director of Motorola Solutions and a distinguished visiting professor at the George Mason University School of Public Policy, said in a rare extended interview that Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies shared sensitive US information with the Beijing government. In a brief aside, he added that he’s undecided as to whether corporations should be allowed to go on the cyber-offensive, even in the absence of government intervention and protection.
Quartz talked to Hayden about the threats private companies face and whether they’re well-positioned to address those threats for themselves, and for humanity.
What cyber threats do you find most concerning?
You’ve got three levels of threats; the shorthand is steal, disrupt and destroy. You’ve also got three levels of actors. You’ve got nation states, you’ve got criminal elements and then you’ve got that mass out there; activists, nihilists, anarchists, Anonymous, Lulzsec and so on. And blessedly the order I gave them to you—states, criminals the rest – is pretty much a ranking of their capability. And what we’re seeing is that all the boats in the harbor are going up, and so capabilities we now associate with criminal gangs or mid-range nation states will over time become available to this third group.
As tough as attribution is, nation states still have to believe that they are responsible for their actions. There can be sanctions and retaliations. Criminal groups, they’re after the money, and they’re in kind of a symbiotic relationship with their targets and even in nature, the parasite would be unwise to kill the host. But the third group, they have sometimes unreasonable, unmeetable, undefinable demands. In one, three or five years, you’ve got a group out there that’s opposed to capitalism, let’s say. And if they start to get some of these advanced capabilities, the very destructive attack for ideological purposes is going to be more possible and more likely. So my line to folks is, this is going to get worse before it gets better.