About two dozen nations have developed cyber-attack capabilities and have their eyes on targets inside the U.S. government or businesses, the top cybercrime law enforcement official in the U.S. said.
“There are countries who have an interest in obtaining information from the U.S., in terms of the electronic theft of data,” said Shawn Henry, the assistant director in charge of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Cyber Division.
Henry declined to name countries, but he called organized attacks on U.S. cyber targets a “significant threat” during a press conference Wednesday. Over the past year, cyber attacks against U.S. targets have become increasingly sophisticated, said Henry, appointed to the top post in the Cyber Division in September.
The FBI has thousands of open investigations into cybercrime and organized cyber attacks, said Henry, who’s investigated cybercrime for the FBI on and off for the past nine years. The FBI has also tracked terrorist groups that use cybercrime such as identity theft to fund their operations, he added.
Henry encouraged government agencies and U.S. businesses to worry less about where the cyber threat was coming from and more about how to protect their data and networks.
“They’ve got to be concerned about the information on their networks and ingress into their networks,” he said. “The threat actor shouldn’t be all that important to them because once the information is gone, it’s gone. If it’s a kid from Iowa who steals the information, it can still be turned over to a terrorist organization.”
Henry stayed away from giving specific numbers during his briefing, but he said he’s seeing an increase in the use of botnets — networks of compromised computers — to commit cybercrime. Botnets are being used to send phishing spam e-mail, spread malicious code and attack computer networks, he said.
The FBI is also seeing significant organized crime over the Internet, including traditional organized crime groups moving their operations to the Web and groups of criminal hackers meeting each other and planning crime over the Web. “There are organized groups that are very successful,” he said.
Asked if terrorist groups had targeted the U.S. electrical grid or air-traffic control system, Henry declined to single out those sectors. “There are parties that are interested in doing whatever damage they can with the greatest impact on the U.S.,” he said.
Henry also talked about governmentwide efforts to fight cybercrime. In January, U.S. President George Bush launched an effort called the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative. Many of the details are classified, but the FBI is working closely with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other agencies to improve cybersecurity inside and outside the U.S. government, Henry said.
Some of the major efforts include educating government agencies and businesses about cyber threats, and recruiting top U.S. workers to the cybersecurity field, Henry said. The U.S. has “lost some of our advantage” in the area of cybersecurity as many students have opted for other careers, Henry said.
The FBI is also working out ways to coordinate sources of information about cyber threats and cyber criminals and share that information across the government and with the private sector, Henry said.