Washington: A senior US official has told lawmakers that they now consider cyber attacks as among the top threats to the national security, even though their is remote chance of any such major attack against the critical infrastructure systems during the next two years.
In a significant departure from the past, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in his unclassified annual threat assessment to the Congress, has put cyber attacks ahead of threat from terrorists, and that from Iran and North Korea.
"When it comes to the distinct threat areas, our statement this year leads with cyber. It is hard to overemphasise its significance. Increasingly, state and non-state actors are gaining and using cyber expertise," Clapper told members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
He said online attackers apply cyber techniques and capabilities to achieve strategic objectives by gathering sensitive information from both public and private entities, controlling the content and flow of information, and challenging perceived adversaries in cyberspace.
"These capabilities put all sectors of our county at risk, from government and private networks to critical infrastructures," Clapper said.
He pointed out towards indications that some terrorist organisations are interested in developing offensive cyber capabilities and cyber criminals are using a growing black market to sell cyber tools that fall into the hands of both state and non-state actors.
"Of course, as the terrorist threat has receded, the threat from cyber attack and cyber espionage has grown," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairperson of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
"We have seen large-scale denial-of-service attacks against US banks and recent public reports, including by the computer security firm Mandiant, about massive cyber penetrations and loss of intellectual property from United States businesses," she said.
John Brennan, the new CIA Director, said the seriousness and the diversity of threats the country faces in the cyber domain are increasing on a daily basis.
"From my perspective, I think this is one of the real significant national security challenges we face. The threat is going to continue and it's going to grow. What we need to do as a country is to reduce the vulnerabilities and take the mitigation steps," he said.
He called for doing more for protecting country's vital infrastructures from cyber attacks by understanding the nature, scope and diversity of the threat.