World US security chiefs: Cyber threats a potential game changer

US security chiefs: Cyber threats a potential game changer

FBI Director James Comey
FBI Director James Comey

(AA) – While armed groups continue to pose significant challenges to American security, new threats in the virtual world may pose unprecedented challenges, the heads of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security said Wednesday.

Referring to a surge in organized crime in the 1930s that was sparked by the advent of the automobile, FBI Director James Comey said the threat posed by cyber crime “transcends that in ways that are difficult to get your head around.”

“We think this is a threat that is moving, not at 40 or 50 miles per hour, but at 186,000 miles per second – the speed of light” he told a meeting of the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a State Department public-private partnership focused on security.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said that as his department seeks to recruit new talent to combat the threat, information sharing between government agencies and private partners is “key.”

In an alleged case of state-sponsored cyber attacks, the U.S. indicted five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army on May 19 on charges of computer hacking, cyber espionage and other charges. The U.S. alleges that the hackers were attempting to steal sensitive information for the benefit of Chinese competitors, including state-owned firms.

Many have said that the U.S. will not be able to try the individuals, to which Comey said “Never say never. We have many flaws in the FBI, but we are a dogged people, and we do not give up.”

“But importantly, we are calling out that kind of conduct to try to impose some costs on the people who think it’s a freebie,” he added.

As law enforcement seeks to ramp up its efforts to combat cyber threats, recent disclosures of sensitive mass data collection programs have prompted public mistrust leading major firms like Google and Apple to call for the government to reform its data collection programs.

Comey said he was worried that the skepticism with which Americans should treat government power would turn into cynicism about the government’s intent.

“What I worry about in a post-Snowden world is that good skepticism has bled over into an unreasoning cynicism about government, and that any association you might have with us is suspicious,” he said referring to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden who revealed the government’s mass data collection programs.

Even as the threat posed by virtual attacks grows, the U.S. must maintain a keen eye on traditional threats, according to Johnson.

“In my judgment, counterterrorism must and will remain the cornerstone of the department’s mission,” he said. “Thirteen years after 9/11, it is still a dangerous world, except that the terrorist threat is evolving in very distinct ways.”

While the U.S. has made gains in taking out key al-Qaida leaders, the emergence of affiliate groups and “lone-wolf” militants has complicated its efforts – to say nothing of the advent of former affiliate gone rogue ISIL.

In a bid to recruit additional members and inspire others to carry out independent attacks, the group has developed a sizeable social media and on-line presence, which Johnson said is “perhaps the slickest social media of any terrorist organization.”

“The lone wolf threat is among those that worries me the most,” he added.

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