Cyberwar and the Future of Cyber Conflict
The world is gearing up for cyberwar. The U.S. Cyber Command became operational in November. NATO has enshrined cyber security among its new strategic priorities. The head of Britain’s armed forces said recently that boosting cyber capability is now a huge priority for the UK. And we know China is already engaged in broad cyber espionage attacks against the west. So how can we control a burgeoning cyber arms race?
We may already have seen early versions of cyberwars in Estonia and Georgia, possibly perpetrated by Russia. It’s hard to know for certain, not only because such attacks are often impossible to trace, but because we have no clear definitions of what a cyberwar actually is.
Do the 2007 attacks against Estonia, traced to a young Russian man living in Tallinn and no one else, count? What about a virus from an unknown origin, possibly targeted at an Iranian nuclear complex? Or espionage from within China, but not specifically directed by its government? To such questions one must add even more basic issues, like when a cyberwar is understood to have begun, and how it ends. When even cyber security experts can’t answer these questions, it’s hard to expect much from policymakers.
We can set parameters. It is obviously not an act of war just to develop digital weapons targeting another country. Using cyber attacks to spy on another nation is a grey area, which gets greyer still when a country penetrates information networks, just to see if it can do so. Penetrating such networks and leaving a back door open, or even leaving logic bombs behind to be used later, is a harder case—yet the US and China are doing this to each other right now.
And what about when one country deliberately damages the economy of another, as one of the WikiLeaks cables shows that a member of China’s politburo did against Google in January 2010? Definitions and rules are hard not just because the tools of war have changed, but because cyberspace puts them into the hands of a broader group of people. Previously only the military had weapons. Now anyone with sufficient computer skills can take matters into their own hands.
There are more basic problems too. When a nation is attacked in a regular conflict, a variety of military and civil institutions respond. The legal framework for this depends on two things: the attacker and the motive. But when you’re attacked on the internet, those are precisely the two things you don’t know. We don’t know if Georgia was attacked by the Russian government, or just some hackers living in Russia. In spite of much speculation, we don’t know the origin, or target, of Stuxnet. We don’t even know if last July 4’s attacks against US and South Korean computers originated in North Korea, China, England, or Florida.
When you don’t know, it’s easy to get it wrong; and to retaliate against the wrong target, or for the wrong reason. That means it is easy for things to get out of hand. So while it is legitimate for nations to build offensive and defensive cyberwar capabilities we also need to think now about what can be done to limit the risk of cyberwar.
A first step would be a hotline between the world’s cyber commands, modelled after similar hotlines among nuclear commands. This would at least allow governments to talk to each other, rather than guess where an attack came from. More difficult, but more important, are new cyberwar treaties. These could stipulate a no first use policy, outlaw unaimed weapons, or mandate weapons that self-destruct at the end of hostilities. The Geneva Conventions need to be updated too.
Cyber weapons beg to be used, so limits on stockpiles, and restrictions on tactics, are a logical end point. International banking, for instance, could be declared off-limits. Whatever the specifics, such agreements are badly needed. Enforcement will be difficult, but that’s not a reason not to try. It’s not too late to reverse the cyber arms race currently under way. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before something big happens: perhaps by the rash actions of a low level military officer, perhaps by a non-state actor, perhaps by accident. And if the target nation retaliates, we could actually find ourselves in a cyberwar.
This essay was originally published in the Financial Times (free registration required for access, or search on Google News).