WASHINGTON - Warning of a "cyber arms race," a leading Web security firm said Tuesday that China, France, Israel, Russia and the United States were among countries that have developed "cyber weapons."
"McAfee began to warn of the global cyber arms race more than two years ago, but now we're seeing increasing evidence that it's become real," said Dave DeWalt, president and chief executive of McAfee Inc.
"Several nations around the world are actively engaged in cyberwar-like preparations and attacks," he said. "Today, the weapons are not nuclear, but virtual, and everyone must adapt to these threats."
The Santa Clara, California-based McAfee, in its fifth annual "Virtual Criminology Report," said China, France, Israel, Russia and the United States have developed "advanced offensive cyber capabilities."
McAfee said that cyberattacks with political objectives were on the rise and although there was disagreement among experts over its definition "cyberwarfare is a reality."
Among the cases cited in the report were the August 2008 cyber campaign against Georgia by Russian nationalists during the South Ossetia war and July 2009 attacks against official US and South Korean websites believed by some experts to have come from North Korea.
"Over the past year, the increase in politically motivated cyberattacks has raised alarm and caution, with targets including the White House, Department of Homeland Security, US Secret Service and Department of Defense in the US alone," McAfee said.
"Nation-states are actively developing cyberwarfare capabilities and involved in the cyber arms race, targeting government networks and critical infrastructures," it said.
McAfee said what it called a "Cyber Cold War" may already be underway.
"While we have not yet seen a 'hot' cyber war between major powers, the efforts of nation-states to build increasingly sophisticated cyberattack capabilities -- and in some cases demonstrate a willingness to use them -- suggests that a 'Cyber Cold War' may have already begun," it said.
The company said critical infrastructure was particularly vulnerable, in part because of its reliance on the Internet.
"If a major cyber conflict between nation states were to erupt, it is very likely that the private sector would get caught in the crossfire," it said.
"Most experts agree that critical infrastructure systems -- such as the electrical grid, banking and finance, and oil and gas sectors -- are vulnerable to cyberattack in many countries," it said.
"In most developed countries, critical infrastructure is connected to the Internet and lacks proper security functions, leaving these installations vulnerable to attacks," McAfee said.
It said some nation states "are actively doing reconnaissance to identify specific vulnerabilities" and quoted one unidentified expert as saying they were "laying the electronic battlefield and preparing to use it."
McAfee said what constitutes an act of war in cyberspace -- and the proper response -- was not yet clear.
"Cyberwarfare entangles so many different actors in so many different ways that the rules of engagement are not clearly defined," it said.
"Without a proper definition in place, it is nearly impossible to determine when a political response or threat of military action is warranted," it said.
The McAfee report was prepared by cybersecurity expert Paul Kurtz, a former White House adviser and included interviews with more than 20 international relations, national security and Internet security experts from around the world.