It amuses me that folks were shocked by the latest treasure trove of goodies from the HBGary email spool. Basically these folks built custom malware on behalf of their government clients. Ars Technica digs in (with pretty impressive technical depth, I might add) and makes clear what you should already know.

We are in the midst of another cold war. This war is not being fought with nuclear warheads, but computer malware. It’s not visible to most people – and, honestly, most people don’t really care. They should, because the new attacks could knock down our power grids, contaminate our water supplies, and basically cause chaos.

You all know I’m no Chicken Little – and to be clear I sleep very well at night. I wasn’t even a glimmer in my parents’ eyes when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the brink, but the ramifications of an all-out cyber conflict are similar. Plenty of folks have semantic issues with calling computers attacking each other ‘war’, because no one actually bleeds (directly). And I agree with that, somewhat. Cyber conflict won’t result in a mushroom cloud or tens of thousands vaporized in a split second (not yet anyway), but the potential for indirect damage is real.

But to make the point again, I sleep well at night because as much as it hurts to know there are foreign nations in our most critical stuff (yes, APT, I’m talking about you), we are in their stuff as well. Stuxnet, anyone? What makes you think we aren’t in all the major systems of our potential adversaries? Right, that would be a bad assumption.

So we have a good old-fashioned standoff. Another Cold War. Mutually assured destruction is a pretty good deterrent to anyone actually initiating a cyber conflict. Why do you think the APT doesn’t bother to cover its tracks? They want us to know they are there. Duh.

Back in the days of the original Cold War, the private sector was engaged to improve our warheads, defend against enemy warheads (remember Star Wars?), and come up with other innovations to give us a snowball’s chance of surviving a nuclear conflict. In this Cold War, we have the private sector providing new weapons (read: malware) and new defenses (your very own security industry) to give us a snowball’s chance of surviving a cyber-conflict. HBGary is not unique in this pursuit. Not by a long shot. There are no white hats or black hats in this game. You need to play both offense and defense. And clearly the US does.

We never got the opportunity to see any of the Beltway bandits’ mail spools during the last Cold War, but I suspect we’d be similarly nauseated. But with that nausea comes a sense of relief that the best and the brightest (including Greg Hoglund) are working to protect our interests. Now I understand these weapons can just as easily be used against us, but that has always been the case.

So I guess my message is to grow up, people. National security (whatever that means) is a messy business.