SAN FRANCISCO — FBI Director Robert S. Mueller believes public-private collaboration is crucial to protect America from cyberattacks — a threat he thinks could become bigger than terrorism itself.

Addressing a crowded hall at the annual RSA Conference on Thursday, March 1, Mueller said government and business need to pool their resources to combat cyberthreats.

“We cannot confront cybercrime on our own. Borders and boundaries pose no obstacles for hackers, but they continue to pose obstacles for global law enforcement, with conflicting laws, different priorities and diverse criminal justice systems,” Mueller said, echoing comments he has made in the past. “And with each passing day, the need for a collective approach for true collaboration and timely information sharing becomes more pressing.”

Terrorists have not used the Internet to launch a full-scale attack, Mueller said, but their intent should not be underestimated.

Mueller mentioned al-Qaida’s online English-language magazine, Inspire, which is used to share ideas and recruit members, and how al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia, uses Twitter to taunt enemies and encourage terrorist activity.

Those who claimed responsibility for the attempted Times Square bombing in May 2010 conducted reconnaissance and surveillance on public Web cameras, shared operational details on file sharing sites, communicated via remote conferencing software and avoided detection by IP address by using a proxy server.

State-sponsored computer hacking, espionage and criminals who steal information and sell it are other threats.

“We are losing data, we are losing money, we are losing ideas, and we are losing innovation,” Mueller said. “And as citizens, we are increasingly vulnerable to losing our information — and together we must find a way to stop the bleeding.”

FBI Efforts

Mueller told the conference-goers that the FBI is fighting back.

The FBI partnered with authorities in Denmark, Estonia and Germany in Operation Ghost Click to shut down an illegal network operated by Rove Digital, an Estonian company. The criminals had manipulated Internet click advertising to redirect users to fraudulent ads. The scheme affected more than 100 countries and reaped millions of dollars in profit. Six Estonians were arrested and charged for the crime.

In April 2011, the bureau dismantled the Coreflood botnet thanks to a partnership with police and the private sector. The malware had infected 2 million computers, allowing hackers to steal personal and financial information. Authorities were able to seize the domain names and reroute the botnet to FBI-controlled servers.

This was all thanks to partnerships the FBI has cultivated for years with companies and foreign law enforcement agencies. Mueller talked up the existence of 63 legal attaché offices worldwide that are sharing information with international partners. The FBI has special agents in police departments in Romania, Estonia, the Netherlands and the Ukraine. The FBI also has “cybersquads” in the bureau’s 56 U.S.-based field offices with more than 1,000 specially trained agents and analysts.

They’ve successfully engaged some notable threats, but there are more to come.

“Terrorism does remain the FBI’s top priority, but in the not-too-distant future, we anticipate that the cyberthreat will post the No. 1 threat to our country. We need to take lessons learned from fighting terrorism and apply them to fighting cybercrime,” Mueller said.

The FBI is creating a structure in which agents, no matter where they are located, can collaborate with one another in a virtual environment to handle international threats.

Mueller said that the government needs the private sector’s cooperation to strengthen its assault against cyberthreats. Mueller mentioned the InfraGard project between the FBI and private industry. He also suggested that corporations could lend even more of a helping hand.

Mueller directly addressed vendors at the RSA Conference, saying they have valuable threat data. “You here today are often the first to see new threats coming down the road.”

Collaboration is essential in a world where connectivity grows more commonplace every day.

“One could argue that the more connected we become, the greater the risk to all of us,” Mueller said.

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.