The United States and China are less prepared for disruptive computer attacks than smaller countries such as Finland and Israel, according to the first-ever ranking of individual nations' cybersecurity postures.
The smaller nations' greater dependence on the Internet and strong private sector oversight partly contributed to their high scores, noted a report released Monday by the Security and Defense Agenda, a Brussels think tank. The purpose of the study was to show how each country's defenses stack up against each other's.
Although hackers in China and Russia are understood to be behind much of the cyber espionage in the United States, the countries are less able to defend their own networks, the research showed.
Using a scale of one to five stars, analysts granted Finland, Israel and Sweden each four and half stars. The United States scored four, while China and Russia each earned three stars. Mexico was the least prepared, according to its two-star rating. No countries reached as high as five stars or as low as one star. Security firm McAfee partnered with the Brussels researchers on the study, which surveyed more than 250 world leaders and interviewed about 80 big thinkers in security from governments, academia and the private sector
Timo Härkönen, government security director in the Finnish prime minister's office, told the report's authors that his country has come to realize that the government's main network is not defensible, so resources are concentrated on securing specialized systems.
"Much of the information there [on the government network] is aimed at the general public. We simply have to accept that it will be attacked and invest in protecting more sensitive networks like those of the police, border guards and defense forces, and the government's own confidential network," he said in the report. Finland aims to erect a common, secure network for each of these authorities by 2013.
The study judged each country's readiness based on the pervasiveness of defensive measures such as basic computer hygiene; network-defense technologies such as firewalls and electronic signatures; and standards for enabling a robust, compatible "cyber ecosystem."
Israel's strength in offensive cyber operations could stem from the government's philosophy that networks are literally vital systems. "Cybersecurity is not about saving information or data, but about something deeper than that," Isaac Ben-Israel, senior security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in the study. "It's about securing different life systems regulated by computers. In Israel we realized this 10 years ago."
Critical infrastructure operators in Israel, including power companies, water plants and banks, are instructed by law on how to secure their systems, the report stated.
In the United States, intellectual property theft perpetrated by China and Russia is the most damaging form of breach, according to the study. While public-private partnerships aimed at thwarting cyber espionage are growing, laws limit information sharing, some experts said. "Congress moves extremely slowly. We need government and the private sector to work together better, faster and across more sectors," said Kevin Gronberg, senior counsel for the House Homeleand Security Committee. But the report says other experts view the relationship as a "big brother-little brother one, rather than a partnership of equals," adding, "in the U.S. we struggle with the idea of trusting government."
More than half the study participants said they regard cyberspace as an international domain, in the same way sea and outer space are global commons. International military organizations such as NATO appear to share this belief. Last fall, NATO tripled funding to protect its networks by committing 28 million euros.
Russia, perceived as a sanctuary for cyber thugs, scored relatively low in protecting its own civilians. The country is home to bank-cracking viruses and systems called botnets that hijack people's computers to blast spam. Russia has a hard time identifying its hackers partly because, unlike other countries, it allows users to register Web services anonymously. But the country is less dependent on the Web than other large nations, however, so cyber intrusions are not as great a threat to critical services.
That said, Vitaly Kamluk, a Russia-based malware expert at Kaspersky Labs, noted, "we're growing more and more like the rest of the world now. What's new is that Russian hackers are now targeting local citizens, which they didn't before."
Little is known about China's information warfare capabilities, but according to the report, the security industry there is still in its fledgling years. It does have military training programs that include cyberwar instruction. There are reports of a Chinese cyber militia that is a "loose web of cowboy hackers" not formally connected to the military or to the civilian government, who hack for somewhat patriotic reasons.