DAVOS, Switzerland — China, the United States and Russia are among 20 countries locked in a cyberspace arms race and gearing up for possible Internet hostilities, according to the head of web security firm McAfee.
Dave DeWalt, chief executive and president of the US firm said the traditional defensive stance of government computer infrastructures has shifted in recent years.
"This movement from a defensive posture to a more offensive posture is just very obvious," he said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
McAfee said it has identified at least five countries with cyber weapons, including the United States, China, Russia, Israel and France.
"We're now seeing 20 plus countries, governments arm themselves for cyber warfare, cyber espionage, cyber offensive capabilities," said DeWalt.
"There's an arms race going on in cyberspace," he told AFP.
DeWalt is not the first to sound alarm bells about cyber warfare. The UN telecommunications agency chief Hamadoun Toure warned in October that the next world war could take place in cyberspace.
Pointing to the recent attack on Google, DeWalt noted that it illustrated a shift from espionage and attacks on government infrastructure to an offensive on structure that is "commercial in nature."
Google had threatened to pull out of China due to cyber attacks which it claimed originated in the Asian giant. The complaint has escalated into a major diplomatic row.
DeWalt said the attack on Google was "really one of the first government on commercial, and potentially highly sophisticated cyber espionage really focusing in on highly intellectual property companies like Google, Adobe."
The attack, dubbed Operation Aurora, has hit over 30 companies and the number of victim firms could still grow, said DeWalt.
But it was just one of "a series of highly escalated attacks in the last 12 months."
McAfee has seen a "more than 500 percent increase in net new malware" -- harmful software such as spyware, viruses or trojans -- in the past 12 months.
"That's more malware than we have seen in the past five years combined," said DeWalt.
McAfee's latest report compiling a survey of some 600 IT security executives found that 60 percent of those who responded believe representatives of foreign governments were involved in infiltrations of their infrastructure.
Some 36 percent said the United States posed the biggest threat to their infrastructure while 33 percent named China.
The survey also found that attacks are costing 6.3 million dollars a day, or 1.75 billion dollars a year, around the world.
Service outages brought about by attacks on web infrastructure are most costly for the oil and gas sector.
"As nation states and very sophisticated criminal organisations have piled into cyberspace to engage in activities designed to steal secrets or interrupt services, the private sector is increasingly caught in the crossfire," said Stewart Baker, who authored the report.
Despite the potential damage, governments appeared to be lagging behind in taking measures to get private sector to protect their web infrastructure.
Only China appeared to be "developing a relationship with their industry... in getting companies to adopt particular security standards," said Baker, who is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
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