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Japan to Upgrade Its Cyberdefense Capabilities

  • Reuters

Fiber optic cables carrying internet providers are seen running into a server room at Intergate. File photo.

Fiber optic cables carrying internet providers are seen running into a server room at Intergate. File photo.

Civil servants from across Japan recently gathered at Japan's Interior Ministry to receive their first training session on how to defend themselves against a cyber assault.

Japan has no central agency tasked with defending the nation in cyberspace, and technicians from Japan's key ministries have been brought in to test their skills.

Officials say the threat from hackers is rising and upping Japan's game is increasingly urgent.

The country's Cabinet Secretariat, which staffs a small 24/7 cyber surveillance team, says it detected 1,080,000 potential attacks against the government's networks in 2012, for an average of about 3,000 potential attacks daily.

That was nearly double the 660,000 incidents logged in 2011.

“There has been a spike in the number of targeted cyber attacks on the Japanese government, so increasing our ability to deal with them is a matter of urgency,” said Satoshi Murakami, an analyst at the Interior Ministry.

Now Japan's defense ministry is adding cyberspace to the realm of national defense, joining sea, air and land.

The ministry is seeking a budget increase to reorganize its loosely-spread technicians into a centralized force of 100 cyber analysts.

However, so far it only monitors its own internal network, which safeguards secrets from ballistic missile defense to joint technology development with the U.S., and officials say it's struggling to handle even that.

“If you ask me what I need, I'd say I don't have enough people, equipment or money to do the job. Every year cyber threats are getting more and more complicated, and attacks like viruses have become increasingly difficult to detect,” said Kazunori Kimura, head of cyber planning at Japan's defense ministry.

“Cyber attacks are getting more and more sophisticated, and sometimes we cannot defend against them using the systems we currently have in place,” he added.

Experts say malicious software that infiltrates computer networks and leaves behind spy programs has been successfully used in recent years against Japan's space agency, national lawmakers and its finance and agriculture ministries. A source close to the defense ministry's cyber program says the ministry is attacked on a daily basis.

But, as yet, Japan has little idea where the hacking is coming from.

Analysts are prevented from following or countering hackers by laws that prevent retaliation and the production of viruses.

That stops investigators from penetrating beyond computer systems that may have been “hijacked” by hackers to disguise their real location.

“We've all got our hands tied by legislation here in Japan - we can't even investigate who is doing the hacking. So even if the Defense Ministry was hit by a cyber attack, they could do no more than a private sector company. That is to say, they can only sit there and watch the attack. There's just no way they can find out who did it, what their methods are, or what country or organization they're from,” said Itsuro Nishimoto, head of technology at LAC, a security company that advises many Japanese government departments.

“They have a clear idea of what defines a physical attack, they know how to respond if Japan's attacked with something like a missile. But in cyberspace they've got no idea what to do. They don't know if some cyber attacks could have a military purpose, or how Japan could respond to them if so. It's not even being discussed,” he said.

The defense ministry says it is “studying” how it can respond to cyber assaults.