Security is a major consideration for data centers of all stripes: individuals, organizations and even nations are out to cause your company damage by using your own IT infrastructure against you. But is the threat of a looming cyberwar something that companies really should do something about?
Cyberwar: Yes or No?
What exactly does a cyberwar look like? The answer to that question is not entirely clear. In the western world—in particular, in the U.S.—the population has become increasingly separated from the true nature of war: an extremely bloody, violent and destructive conflict that can traumatize even witnesses, to say nothing of combatants. But everything is a war these days: the war on poverty, the war on terrorism, the war on drugs and the war on obesity. Is a cyberwar a bloody free-for-all in the vein of a World War II or similar conflict, or is it more subtle, perhaps in the vein of the so-called war on obesity?
One could easily envision highly decorated military generals commanding a corps of nerds in some deep bunker filled with computers—perhaps reminiscent of the 1983 movie WarGames—but with strikes and counterstrikes that interrupt this or that utility service, cellular service or IT service. But is such a scenario likely on a large international scale? Will the U.S. and China descend to the point that each side spends billions not trying to stage an amphibious assault on the opposing shore, but to take down one another’s power grid?
Doubtless, national and international entities—whether private or governmental—are engaging in espionage attempts and even outright attacks (such as the Stuxnet worm, which apparently targeted Iran). But this seems far from an outright war, instead being closer to typical international jockeying of the sort that never seems to go away.
Cyberwar: Let’s Be Realistic
Perhaps the grandest scenario for a cyberwar would be a face-off between China and the U.S. But let’s be realistic: the U.S. has borrowed vast sums from China, and it is one of China’s largest customers (how much of the stuff you own was made in China?). Is China really interested in starting a war—whether conventional or in cyberspace—that interrupts America’s already faltering economy? Such a policy would place China’s investments at risk, and it would alienate an important customer for Chinese goods.
Just follow the money: China is not about to start a devastating cyberwar with the U.S. Will it spy on the U.S. and maybe take some small potshots? Probably. And you can bet the U.S. is and will continue doing the same to China. But in all likelihood, you’re not going to arrive at work one day to find that your entire business has been shut down because China shut down your utility company and Internet connectivity through a coordinated attack. Scientific American (“Cyberwar Most Likely to Take Place among Smaller Powers, Experts Say”) notes that “Most Americans who worry about cyberwarfare are concerned that it will be directed against the United States. But the truth is that cyber conflict is far more likely to involve smaller players.”
Follow the money further: will U.S. government officials try to rile you up about cyber threats from China and elsewhere? Absolutely. There’s lots of money to be made through more defense contracts, political contributions and so forth. And there’s lots more power to be gained. But the inflated view of cyberwar propagated by national security fanatics appears highly unlikely if one simply considers what the major powers have to lose by instigating such a struggle.
What You Should Do for Your Data Center
Assume the above reasoning is wrong, and China and the U.S. (or some other powerful pair) square off in a cyberwar (or combined cyber- and conventional war). Assume utilities are knocked out around the country and Internet connectivity is all but lost. Shouldn’t you prepare for such a widespread and devastating calamity? In all honesty, why bother? Do you prepare for the possibility that the sun explodes? Probably not, since if such an occurrence were to take place, your concerns would probably not focus on whether you’re going to meet your quarterly profit expectations.
In some sense, then, nothing much is different. Your data center is still a target of a variety of attacks, and whether these attacks are part of an ostensible cyberwar or not, you need to essentially use the same security strategy. Attempting to plan for catastrophic destruction or interruption of infrastructure around the nation (or world) is pointless; focus instead on what you can control.
One of the best things you can do to protect your company is to follow established procedures for storing and backing up your critical data. If you have secure copies of all your important data, then an attack on your data center (or wider infrastructure) may interrupt your business, but you will not be forced to rebuild from the ground up when services and infrastructure are restored. Call it a cyberwar or call it everyday attacks on your IT resources: either way, backing up your data is a critical part of protecting your business and peace of mind.
Although a cyberwar evokes images of computer attacks from remote locations, localized attacks are still possible, as they are in everyday situations. Thus, site security is critical for protecting your IT assets, cyberwar or not. In addition, consider implementing strong and well-thought-out policies regarding use of mobile devices containing sensitive information. Your employees may be trustworthy, but even the best employee can accidentally misplace a mobile device or hard drive from time to time. And if such a device falls into the wrong hands, whether accidentally or by design, your company can suffer greatly.
Finally, and perhaps obviously, implement a broad spectrum of protections for your systems, including firewalls, anti-malware and other measures to thwart cyber attacks. And make sure that you perform the required updating and maintenance to keep these measures running—antivirus software, for instance, is only useful if it incorporates the definitions for the latest threats. Part of your strategy may be evaluation or testing of your security measures to search for holes that you may have missed.
A cyberwar that wreaks global havoc on utilities and infrastructure seems unlikely. More probably, we may see smaller and more-isolated incidents, such as the Stuxnet worm. Devastating warfare generally makes bad economic sense, particularly between groups that are closely related financially (for instance, China and the U.S.). Regardless of the probability that a cyberwar (however it is defined) will break out, however, you need not (and should not) attempt to prepare for grave calamities. Instead, prepare for the most likely threats—which are generally the same ones that you face every day. Properly back up your critical data, implement malware and intrusion protection, and secure your physical data center site to prevent unauthorized access. Also, make sure you have policies in place—and that your employees are familiar with them—regarding the use of mobile devices that contain sensitive company information. In taking such measures, not only will you be protecting your company from everyday threats, you’ll be preparing for threats that may arise in the context of a cyberwar. Regardless of whether you think such a war is likely, however, security should be a priority, both for your own protection and for the protection of your customers.