Officials from the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Homeland Security (DHS) this week warned that the prospect of a cyber attack remains imminent even as their agencies continue to monitor threats to U.S. critical infrastructure.
Speaking at The Wall Street Journal's CEO Council, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said the future threat of a cyber attack is "huge," while there is a "considerable current threat."
"That's just the reality we all face," he said according to a transcript of his comments.
He said the DoD thinks it has adequately secured the .mil domain but is working to protect U.S. partners in the defense industrial industry so they are shielded.
Gates added that the DoD's recent agreement with the National Security Agency to work together more closely on cybersecurity also should help the federal government protect its websites from intrusion.
His comments came only a day before a report by a congressional commission unveiled that China Telecom diverted traffic for 18 minutes in April from U.S. government sites -- including those from the .mil and .gov domains -- away from normal traffic routing and through servers in China.
While the annual report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said it could not determine what China was doing with the traffic, a report by Northrop Grumman prepared for the same commission last year said that China is likely using the Internet to spy on the U.S. government in preparation for a future cyber attack.
If China isn't enough to worry about, there is also Stuxnet, a complex computer worm, which was discovered in July when it was believed to be targeting Iranian power plants.
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs convened Thursday to discuss how to protect U.S. critical infrastructure in light of Stuxnet.
Testifying before the committee, Sean McGuirk, acting director of the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center at the DHS, said that federal officials have considerable concern about Stuxnet because of the unique nature of the threat it poses.
Stuxnet, unlike other computer worms, is highly complex, containing more than 4,000 functions, which is comparable to the code in some commercial software, he said, according to a transcript of his testimony.
The worm also is difficult to detect because it "uses a variety of previously seen individual cyber attack techniques, tactics, and procedures, automates them, and hides its presence so that the operator and the system have no reason to suspect that any malicious activity is occurring," McGuirk said.
DHS officials also are concerned that the underlying Stuxnet code could be adapted to target a broad range of control systems -- such as the electricity grid and power plants -- in "any number of critical infrastructure sectors," he added.
To combat Stuxnet, the DHS has been analyzing and reporting on the worm since its detection and has briefed dozens of government and industry organizations, as well as advised the control systems industry about how to detect and mitigate an attack.