Ray Boisvert, a former assistant director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told a gathering of academics and security professionals Friday that a digital assault would mean malfunctioning cash machines, no gas at the pumps and empty store shelves.
"One significant cyber-attack on a critical infrastructure node will bring calamity upon all of us," Boisvert said during a panel discussion sponsored by the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies.
"I will say categorically from my experience that the cyber-threat is real, it's extremely significant, and it's having a big impact on both public and private-sector interests. And it is fundamentally undermining our future prosperity as a nation."
Governments and many companies are only now beginning to face the threat from rogue states bent on doing damage or stealing secrets, said Boisvert, who left CSIS about six months ago to become a private consultant.
Boisvert pointed to "worrisome" countries including China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, but stressed the list is much longer.
While everyone from cyber-criminals to pimply-faced teens in their basements pose a challenge, the state-led threats are "the most severe and the most important for us all."
In the information age, business people and bureaucrats insist on ready access to information wherever they go, Boisvert said. "Having those taps wide open then causes complexities and vulnerabilities which are being severely exploited by a number of threat actors out there."
Some in the line of fire are wilfully blind to the cyber-problem because it's so complex and often there is no immediate pain when a computer network is breached, he said.
"Wishing it away is not an option."
Federal auditor general Michael Ferguson recently found the government had been slow to mount an effective response to the rapidly growing threat of cyber-attacks on crucial systems.
The government had made only limited progress in shoring up computer networks and had lagged in building partnerships with other players, Ferguson concluded.
There must be better links between government and business to share information and intelligence on cyber-threats, Boisvert said.
Governments should adopt methods now applied by businesses, such as banks, which have invested time and resources in better security, he said.
Revamped laws, diplomatic efforts and even military action to strike back against the more serious threats will also be necessary, Boisvert added. But money will be needed most of all.
"There are a number of solutions to help combat the whole cyber-threat," he said.
"But rest assured they will be expensive, they're complicated and they'll take continuous reinvestment of capital and attention from both governments and private sector (players) to eradicate the problem — or at least be able to counter it effectively."
In his report, the auditor general pointed out the federal cyber-incident response centre doesn't even operate around the clock.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews acknowledged that cyber-threats were not considered a priority until recently.
They are not the only vexing security issues posed by advancing technology.
Machines are beginning to progress to the point where they can sift through and make sense of huge amounts of information, said Duncan Stewart of the National Research Council's security and disruptive technologies division.
It means that 20 years from now, people — including "the bad guys, or anybody who wants to do any type of espionage" — will have a digital expert in their pockets, Stewart told the conference.
"These machines will be better analysts in many, many ways than any one person in this room right now," he said. "They certainly can process more data. And as we go forward in a learning capacity, they will learn how to analyze the data."
Another "huge problem" for federal officials is the prospect of agro-terrorism — an attack involving a biological agent on animals, plants or food stocks, said Peter Uhthoff of the Public Health Agency of Canada.
"We could easily introduce a disease into the Canadian forest industry that would wipe it out, without it being very complicated," he said.
"It's something that would be very, very tough to try to stop."
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