PARIS Top arms groups are on high alert to counter cyber spies from stealing their own secrets at a major arms bazaar outside Paris, even as they market new ways to clients on how to repel hackers in the digital battlespace.
France is hosting the world's largest arms fair for land forces near Paris airport Charles de Gaulle, attended by up to 50,000 people who make, buy and use advanced weapons.
The exhibition space bristles with weaponry from 130 countries including tanks, armored vehicles, riot gear and display cases crammed with guns and ammunition.
But the crowded arms bazaar is also a snooper's paradise and another proving ground for the cyber war which is already testing the resources of major-league Defense companies.
"It is very easy to go crawling over everybody's systems here. Some people come and their approach is to grab everything they can," said a senior Western Defense company official.
"There are two approaches -- they either try to take the whole haystack and look for a needle, or there are those who know exactly what needle they are looking for."
Scouting out the competition is as old as trade fairs themselves, but the biennial Eurosatory arms gala brings together sensitive targets from the United States, Europe, Russia and -- for the first time this year -- China.
The United States has long suspected the Chinese and Russians of using cyber attacks to try to steal sensitive information, but both countries have denied this.
Risks at the Eurosatory arms show range from petty theft to covert photography and electronic eavesdropping. Behind the suits and dark glasses there is an atmosphere of mutual distrust.
"Everyone is told to keep their eyes and ears open, watch that equipment doesn't disappear. If people take photographs, we need to know who they are," said a French Defense executive.
Exhibitors are careful not to bring classified material into a show. But portable computer networks contain commercially sensitive information and may betray a useful signature that could later provide a side door into more sensitive systems.
The threat at a trade show can be hidden inside something as apparently innocent as an electronic press kit, handed out on discs or memory sticks and casually swiped by a competitor.
"At these shows you have to bolt everything down," said an executive with a European Defense company.
Like others, the executive declined to be named when speaking about the threat from other exhibitors.
But virtually all major Defense companies were promoting systems to reduce the risk of cyber attacks whether from hackers, criminals or well-organized, state-run cyber armies.
Defense companies are investing heavily in systems to fight a growing onslaught of cyber attacks on corporations, utilities, financial services companies and government computer banks.
The drive has both strategic and hard-headed financial logic -- to counter new threats that have shifted the odds away from traditional force, and to tap into homeland security budgets as Defense spending gets chopped.
"The digital battlespace brings a new set of non-kinetic challenges. You can do anything there you can do kinetically," said Julian Hellebrand, chief of staff at UK's Cobham.
In actual operations, cyber bombing seeks to exploit a possible Achilles' heel in the way modern warfare is waged. Commanders increasingly want to link up smart systems between land and air or individual soldiers and vehicles.
With the increasing use of coalitions and connections, the number of vulnerable entry points multiplies.
"This makes the world more threatening. The more entrances there are to a system, the more the risks increase," said Jean-Marc Bonnet, a cyber expert at France's Thales.
The electronics firm on Tuesday unveiled a system, Nexium, to prevent hackers choking military and civil networks.
But it was forced to cancel celebrations for a contract with Safran and Nexter to design a "net-centric" war system for the French army called Scorpion after the Defense ministry said it needed more time to review the impact of budget cuts.
(Additional reporting by William Maclean)