We’re in the early years of a cyberwar arms race. It’s expensive, it’s destabilizing, and it threatens the very fabric of the Internet we use every day. Cyberwar treaties, as imperfect as they might be, are the only way to contain the threat.
If you read the press and listen to government leaders, we’re already in the middle of a cyberwar. By any normal definition of the word “war,” this is ridiculous. But the definition of cyberwar has been expanded to include government-sponsored espionage, potential terrorist attacks in cyberspace, large-scale criminal fraud, and even hacker kids attacking government networks and critical infrastructure. This definition is being pushed both by the military and by government contractors, who are gaining power and making money on cyberwar fear.
The danger is that military problems beg for military solutions. We’re starting to see a power grab in cyberspace by the world’s militaries: large-scale monitoring of networks, military control of Internet standards, even military takeover of cyberspace. Last year’s debate over an “Internet kill switch” is an example of this; it’s the sort of measure that might be deployed in wartime but makes no sense in peacetime. At the same time, countries are engaging in offensive actions in cyberspace, with tools like Stuxnet and Flame.
Arms races stem from ignorance and fear: ignorance of the other side’s capabilities, and fear that their capabilities are greater than yours. Once cyberweapons exist, there will be an impetus to use them. Both Stuxnet and Flame damaged networks other than their intended targets. Any military-inserted back doors in Internet systems make us more vulnerable to criminals and hackers. And 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 find ourselves in a real cyberwar.
The cyberwar arms race is destabilizing.
International cooperation and treaties are the only way to reverse this. Banning cyberweapons entirely is a good goal, but almost certainly unachievable. More likely are treaties that stipulate a no-first-use policy, outlaw unaimed or broadly targeted weapons, and mandate weapons that self-destruct at the end of hostilities. Treaties that restrict tactics and limit stockpiles could be a next step. We could prohibit cyberattacks against civilian infrastructure; international banking, for example, could be declared off-limits.
Yes, enforcement will be difficult. Remember how easy it was to hide a chemical weapons facility? Hiding a cyberweapons facility will be even easier. But we’ve learned a lot from our Cold War experience in negotiating nuclear, chemical, and biological treaties. The very act of negotiating limits the arms race and paves the way to peace. And even if they’re breached, the world is safer because the treaties exist.
There’s a common belief within the U.S. military that cyberweapons treaties are not in our best interest: that we currently have a military advantage in cyberspace that we should not squander. That’s not true. We might have an offensive advantagealthough that’s debatablebut we certainly don’t have a defensive advantage. More importantly, as a heavily networked country, we are inherently vulnerable in cyberspace.
Cyberspace threats are real. Military threats might get the publicity, but the criminal threats are both more dangerous and more damaging. Militarizing cyberspace will do more harm than good. The value of a free and open Internet is enormous.
Stop cyberwar fear mongering. Ratchet down cyberspace saber rattling. Start negotiations on limiting the militarization of cyberspace and increasing international police cooperation. This won’t magically make us safe, but it will make us safer.
This essay first appeared on the U.S. News and World Report website, as part of a series of essays on the question: “Should there be an international treaty on cyberwarfare?”
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