Experts say looming IT attacks could be catastrophic for global business and even cost lives.

Dawn of the cyber war. It sounds sensational, doesn’t it? A ripping title for the next zombie blockbuster.

But according to Russian IT whiz kid and anti-virus founder Eugene Kaspersky, the cyber aliens are already here. And soon they will be visibly monstrous.

Accordingly to Kaspersky, it’s not a question of when there will be a global cyber catastrophe, but ‘when’ and ‘how bad’.

Hundreds of industry experts gathered at the 2013 Kaspersky Cyber-Security Summit in New York City to discuss the future of cyber warfare and how the world can prepare itself against assault.

“Every industry can be a victim of an attack, from power companies and telecommunications to banks, transportation and the military,” said Kaspersky, founder and CEO of Kaspersky Lab.

“Some enterprises are facing thousands of attacks a day, while others wonder if they are going to be hacked or not. This will occur across all industries and infrastructures, and we have to think and accept that as a reality. We live in a dangerous world.”

Last week’s conference was timely amid US firms, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, falling victim to Chinese hackers.

The New York Times revealed its computer systems were infiltrated over a period of four months, during which time its reporters were investigating the personal fortune of Chinese premier Wen Jibao – a claim denied by the Chinese government.

Millions of Twitter and LinkedIn passwords have also been stolen by anonymous sources in the past few weeks.

China has been accused of mounting a widespread cyber-spying campaign for several years, and trying to steal classified information and corporate secrets.

According to experts, China, in particular, has become increasingly adept at disguising ‘bots’ and re-routing them through America to camouflage their origins.

LOW ENTRY LEVEL

Today, the level of entry for cyber warriors is much lower than traditional military warfare, but the consequences could be equally catastrophic

“Cyber weapons can easily be tampered with and used against innocent victims, especially because our infrastructures have been developed over 30 years ago and they haven’t been updated,” said Costin Raiu, director of global research and analysis at Kaspersky Labs.

“You can be sure that this will happen. And no one will take responsibility because cyber weapons are anonymous.”

Panellist Howard Schmidt, former cyber-security coordinator of the Obama Administration, pointed out that even the smallest blackout, say, of a routine ticketing machine at an airport, could lead to a domino-effect standstill as flights are delayed and chaos descends on the aviation industry. And this is just a relatively benign example.

Previously, hacking was largely the domain of criminals who would sell information to other criminals, but today it’s likely that that organised criminals are selling information to nation states, or that nation states themselves are perpetrating the hacking. Cyber hacking lends states and individuals a powerful economic and political edge.

THE THREE DANGERS

Experts said the three dangers of cyber war are:

– Ideas from cyber weapons can be repurposed and copied

– Companies become collateral victims in the war between superpowers

– Cyber criminals start using weapons gleaned from governments and nation states.

To stem the coming cyber war, experts agreed that more IT security modules must be included in business education curricula.

The days of using ‘default’ or first names for passwords must end, said experts in a mounting cry against the lax consumer approach to security.

In a wider polemic, Kaspersky warned that global leaders must meet to sign an international treaty against cyber weapons. “There should be the same treaty as there is for nuclear and biological weapons, and a focus on finding the culprits,” he said.

But until the nation states have their own weapons used against them, there is little chance of the treaty being signed, said experts.

It will take Cyber World War I to make that happen.