Google’s Eric Schmidt: “The Internet is, in fact, pretty safe.”

The executive chairman of Google says the most significant threats in cyberspace won’t come from individuals, because the kinds of attacks that a national government worries about are too expensive to be pulled off by one person. 

“Governments are going to continue to do what they’ve always done which is spy, worry about other countries. That’s not going to go away,” Eric Schmidt said in an interview with Rita Braver, which will air on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” this weekend. 

“Individuals are unlikely to be able to put together the kinds of threats that we worry about. It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot  of very specialized knowledge. Because the Internet is, in fact, pretty safe.”  

The image of a lone hacker sitting in a basement somewhere taking down a power grid has been the kind of nightmare scenario that government officials and corporate executives have used over the years to focus attention on cyber security. But increasingly, experts are saying that to pull off such a devastating assault on critical infrastructure is going to take considerable manpower, organization, and money. 

I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a cyber security researcher at a Washington think tank, who said it wasn’t smart for governments to worry about single actors; they should be focusing their counter-cyber war efforts on other governments and organized criminal rings. Look at Stuxnet, he said. The most sophisticated known cyber attack to date is generally believed to have been launched by the US and Israeli governments. The project likely took many months of work and relied on an extraordinarily high level of technical expertise. 

For someone of Schmidt’s statute and national prominence to implicitly rebut the lone-hacker threat as the thing governments should really be worrying about suggests that you’re going to hear more high-level people follow suit. This may help to tamp down some of the more hyperbolic rhetoric surrounding the threat of cyber war. Or it may just cause governments to panic more about other governments.