Cyber defense, not cyberattacks, top priority

Intelligence director says U.S. must place defending its critical infrastructure networks above the ability to launch attacks against foreign systems.

SAN DIEGO -- The United States remains the country most vulnerable to a cyberattack and should concentrate more on defending its computer networks, not on launching offensive cyberattacks, said one of the nation's top cybersecurity officials.

Mike McConnell, director of National Intelligence, told a military communications conference here on Monday, that the need to conduct cyberattacks pales in comparison to the country's responsibility for a rigorous defense of its networks that operate the banking, finance, transportation and electrical industries, which underpin the economy.

"Data destruction is a greater threat [to the United States] than hacking," said McConnell, who spoke at the annual Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association's MILCOM conference. "It is our soft underbelly."

For example, he said if someone could scramble the data in a bank's financial system, it would be tantamount to destroying the bank.

In addition, McConnell said the national intelligence community plans to release within the next week its analysis of potential conflicts during the next 15 to 20 years. The forecast traditionally is released between Election Day and Inauguration Day and focuses on the shortage of water and the price of food will increase by 50 percent, which could lead to potential conflicts.

Demand for food and water will be driven by a global increase in population, which will increase by 1.4 billion people during the next two decades, and many of those people will not have access to potable water, McConnell said.

The intelligence community believes the focus on natural resources will shift from oil to coal and natural gas, changing the competition for natural resources, he said. McConnell predicted that not only nations but terrorist groups will try to claim natural resources.

The forecast does not include a nuclear incident in the next 15 years, but McConnell said the likelihood of one has increased, particularly if Iran develops a nuclear weapon.