Address by John C. Gannon
Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production
The National Security Telecommunications
Information Systems Security Committee

3 April 2001


Thank you.  It is a special pleasure to be among such distinguished speakers today to address such an important organization as the NSTISSC.  Your conference organizers asked me to share our perspective on the cyberthreat, over the next several years. I’ll be happy to do that this morning.

To assist in my discussion of this important topic, I will draw from the work the National Intelligence Council has done on Global Trends 2015, with which I hope you are familiar, and on other estimative work undertaken by the NIC over the past year, especially by our National Intelligence Officer for Science and Technology, Larry Gershwin.  It is useful, I think, to put the cyber threat into the context of a major S&T revolution over the next fifteen years.

In Global Trends 2015 we anticipate that the world will almost certainly experience quantum leaps in information technology (IT) and in other areas of science and technology.  The continuing diffusion of  IT and new applications of biotechnology will be at the crest of the wave.  Information Technology will be the major building block for international commerce and for empowering nonstate actors.  Most experts agree that the IT revolution represents the most significant global transformation since the Industrial Revolution beginning in the mid-eighteenth century.


The networked global economy will be driven by rapid and largely unrestricted flows of information, ideas, cultural values, capital, goods and services, and people:  that is, globalization.  This globalized economy will be a net contributor to increased political stability in the world in 2015, although its reach and benefits will not be universal.  In contrast to the Industrial Revolution, the process and timelines of globalization will be more compressed.  Its evolution will be rocky, marked by chronic financial volatility and a widening economic divide.

GT2015 “Bottom Line”

We do make an effort in GT2015 to cut through the scary scenarios to a broad judgment about the cyber threat:

Which is to say, we need to do a lot more work on this and to keep you all in the loop as we go along.

Perspective from 2001

Let’s jump back from 2015 for a few moments and talk more concretely about the threats we face today.

Hostile cyber activity today is ballooning.  The number of FBI computer network intrusion cases has doubled during each of the past two years.  Meanwhile, several highly publicized intrusions and computer virus incidents since 1998 have fed a public—and perhaps foreign government—perception that the networks upon which US national security and economic well-being depend are vulnerable to attack by almost anyone with a computer, a modem, and a modicum of skill.  This impression, of course, overstates the case.

US Networks as Targets

It is true that information from industry security experts suggests that US national information networks have become more vulnerable—and therefore more attractive as a target of foreign cyber attack.

Nonetheless, mainstream commercial software—whose vulnerabilities are widely known—is replacing relatively secure proprietary network systems by US telecommunications providers and other operators of critical infrastructure. US government and defense networks similarly are increasing their reliance on commercial software.  Such commercial software includes imported products that provide opportunities for foreign implantation of exploitation or attack tools.

Finally, opportunities for foreign placement or recruitment of insiders have become legion.  As part of an unprecedented churning of the global information technology work force, US firms are drawing on pools of computer expertise that reside in a number of potential threat countries, such as Russia.

Despite these growing vulnerabilities, however, the most important US targets remain difficult to compromise.  Compromising such targets requires more advanced tools and tradecraft, such as recruiting an insider.

Growing Foreign Capabilities

Advanced technologies and tools for computer network operations are becoming more widely available, resulting in a basic, but operationally significant, technical cyber capability for US adversaries.
Most US adversaries have access to the technology needed to pursue computer network operations.  Computers are almost globally available, and Internet connectivity is both widespread and increasing.  Both the technology and access to the Internet are inexpensive, relative to traditional weapons, and require no large industrial infrastructure.

Hackers since the mid-1990s have shared increasingly sophisticated and easy-to-use software on the Internet, providing tools that any computer-literate adversary could obtain and use for computer network reconnaissance, probing, penetration, exploitation, or attack.  Moreover, programming aids are making it possible to develop sophisticated tools with only basic programming skills.

Even with technology and tools, considerable tradecraft also is required to penetrate network security perimeters and defeat intrusion detection systems—particularly against defensive reactions by network security administrators.  Tradecraft also will determine how well an adversary can achieve a targeted and reliable outcome, and how likely the perpetrator is to remain anonymous.  Attackers must tailor strategies to specific target networks—requiring advanced and continued reconnaissance to characterize targets and ensure that exploitation tools remain effective in the face of subtle changes to computer systems and networks.

Potential Actors and Threats

Let me talk about some of the groups that will challenge us on the cyber front:


Although the most numerous and publicized cyber intrusions and other incidents are ascribed to lone computer-hacking hobbyists, such hackers pose a negligible threat of widespread, long-duration damage to national-level infrastructures.  The large majority of hackers do not have the requisite tradecraft to threaten difficult targets such as critical US networks—and even fewer would have a motive to do so.

Nevertheless, the large worldwide population of hackers poses a relatively high threat of an isolated or brief disruption causing serious damage, including extensive property damage or loss of life.  As the hacker population grows, so does the likelihood of an exceptionally skilled and malicious hacker attempting and succeeding in such an attack.


A smaller foreign population of politically active hackers—which includes individuals and groups with anti-US motives—poses a medium-level threat of carrying out an isolated but damaging attack.  Most international hacktivist groups appear bent on propaganda rather than damage to critical infrastructures.

Pro-Beijing Chinese hackers over the past two years have conducted mass cyber protests in response to events such as the 1999 NATO bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade. Pro-Serbian hacktivists attacked a NATO Website during Operation Allied Force.  Similar hacktivism accompanied the rise in Israeli-Palestinian clashes last year.

Hackers for Hire

Government and criminal organizations have the resources to recruit hacker talent and the motivation to guide that technical talent with sophisticated tradecraft in order to turn it toward long-term objectives that could threaten the United States.

Industrial Spies and Organized Crime Groups

 International corporate spies and organized crime organizations pose a medium-level threat to the United States through their ability to conduct industrial espionage and large-scale monetary theft, respectively, and through their ability to hire or develop hacker talent.

Foreign corporations also could use computer intrusions to tamper with competitors’ business proposals, in order to defeat competing bids.

Because cyber criminals’ central objectives are to steal, and to do so with as little attention from law enforcement as possible, they are not apt to undertake operations leading to high-profile network disruptions, such as damage to US critical infrastructures.

Moreover, rampant criminal access to
critical financial databases and networks could undermine the public trust essential to the commercial health of US banking institutions and to the operation of the financial infrastructure itself.


Traditional terrorist adversaries of the United States, despite their intentions to damage US interests, are less developed in their computer network capabilities and propensity to pursue cyber means than are other types of adversaries.  They are likely, therefore, to pose only a limited cyber threat.   In the near term, terrorists are likely to stay focused on traditional attack methods. (Nonetheless, we will be on the alert for new information that could alter this judgment. We anticipate that more substantial cyber threats are possible in the future as a more technically competent generation enters the ranks.

National Governments

National cyber warfare programs are unique in posing a threat along the entire spectrum of objectives that might harm US interests.  Among the array of cyber threats, as we see them today, only government-sponsored programs are developing capabilities with the prospect of causing widespread, long-duration damage to US critical infrastructures.

China (to name just one example) is expanding cyber related military training and is already incorporating cyber warfare into military exercises, according to press reporting.

Future Tools and Technology

New cyber tools and technologies are on the way for both the offense and defense.  For example, because networks-and their vulnerabilities-are evolving so rapidly, new tools for network mapping, scanning, and probing will become increasingly critical to both attackers and defenders.  Either side could apply research in autonomous software “agents”-intelligent, mobile, and self-replicating software intended to roam a network gathering data or to reconnoiter other computer network operations.

For defenders, incremental deployment of new or improved security tools will help protect against both remote and inside threats.  Technologies include better intrusion detection systems, better methods for correlating data from multiple defensive tools, automated deployment of security patches, biometric user authentication, wider use of encryption, and public key infrastructures to assure the authenticity and integrity of e-mail, electronic documents, and downloaded software.

For attackers, viruses and worms are likely to become more controllable, precise, and predictable-making them more suitable for weaponization.  Advanced modeling and simulation technologies are likely to assist in identifying critical nodes for an attack and conducting battle damage assessments afterward.  Other capabilities likely by 2005 include self-modification to defeat signature recognition, remote control, stealthy propagation, and the ability of a single tool to affect multiple, mainstream operating systems.

The rapid pace of change in information technology suggests that the appearance of new and unforeseen computer and network technologies and tools could  provide advantages in cyber warfare  to either the defender or the attacker.  Wildcards for the years beyond 2005 include the possibility of fundamental shifts in the nature of computers and networking, driven, for example, by emerging optical technologies.  These changes could improve processing power, information storage, and bandwidth enough to make possible application of advanced software technologies-such as artificial intelligence-to cyber warfare.


Despite the fundamental and global impact of the information revolution, the reliance of critical US activities on computer networks, and the attention being devoted to information operations, uncertainty remains whether computer network operations will evolve into a decisive military weapon for US adversaries.

Whether or not foreign computer network operations mature into a major combat arm, however, they will offer an increasing number of adversaries new options for exerting leverage over the United States-including selection of either nonlethal or lethal damage and the prospect of anonymity.

Implications for Intelligence

Whatever direction the cyberthreat takes, the United States Government will be confronting an increasingly interconnected world in the years ahead.  This is the core message of GT2015.  We will have to develop, in response, greater communications and collaboration across the agencies of our own Government, with other governments, and with the corporate world.  Interagency cooperation will be essential to understanding the cyberthreat, as well as other transnational threats that will crowd our agenda, and to responding effectively with interdisciplinary strategies.  Consequence management of a major attack on a critical US infrastructure would involve virtually all agencies of the Federal Government, State, and local governments, foreign governments, law enforcement, the military, the medical community, and the media.  NSTISSC and the Intelligence Community clearly have a lot of work to do if we are to understand this evolving threat and to be prepared to deal with it.

This dramatic story has no definite ending today.  Clearly, the Intelligence Community has a major challenge ahead to serve you and the American people.

Thank you.