Cyberconflicts and National Security

Whenever national cybersecurity policy is discussed, the same stories come up again and again. Whether the examples are called acts of cyberwar, cyberespionage, hacktivism, or cyberterrorism, they all affect national interest, and there is a corresponding call for some sort of national cyberdefence.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to identify attackers and their motivations in cyberspace. As a result, nations are classifying all serious cyberattacks as cyberwar. This perturbs national policy and fuels a cyberwar arms race, resulting in more instability and less security for everyone. We need to dampen our cyberwar rhetoric, even as we adopt stronger law enforcement policies towards cybersecurity, and work to demilitarize cyberspace.

Let us consider three specific cases:

In Estonia, in 2007, during a period of political tensions between the Russian Federation and Estonia, there were a series of denial-of-service cyberattacks against many Estonian websites, including those run by the Estonian Parliament, government ministries, banks, newspapers and television stations. Though Russia was blamed for these attacks based on circumstantial evidence, the Russian Government never admitted its involvement. An ethnic Russian living in Tallinn, who was upset by Estonia's actions and who had been acting alone, was convicted in an Estonian court for his part in these attacks.

In Dharamsala, India, in 2009, security researchers uncovered a sophisticated surveillance system in the Dalai Lama's computer network. Called GhostNet, further research found the same network had infiltrated political, economic and media targets in 103 countries. China was the presumed origin of this surveillance network, although the evidence was circumstantial. It was also unclear whether this network was run by an organization of the Chinese Government, or by Chinese nationals for either profit or nationalist reasons.

In Iran, in 2010, the Stuxnet computer worm severely damaged, and possibly destroyed, centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, in an effort to set back the Iranian nuclear programme. Subsequent analysis of the worm indicated that it was a well-designed and well-executed cyberweapon, requiring an engineering effort that implied a nation-state sponsor. Further investigative reporting pointed to the United States and Israel as designers and deployers of the worm, although neither country has officially taken credit for it.

Ordinarily, you could determine who the attacker was by the weaponry. When you saw a tank driving down your street, you knew the military was involved because only the military could afford tanks. Cyberspace is different. In cyberspace, technology is broadly spreading its capability, and everyone is using the same weaponry: hackers, criminals, politically motivated hacktivists, national spies, militaries, even the potential cyberterrorist. They are all exploiting the same vulnerabilities, using the same sort of hacking tools, engaging in the same attack tactics, and leaving the same traces behind. They all eavesdrop or steal data. They all engage in denial-of-service attacks. They all probe cyberdefences and do their best to cover their tracks.

Despite this, knowing the attacker is vitally important. As members of society, we have several different types of organizations that can defend us from an attack. We can call the police or the military. We can call on our national anti-terrorist agency and our corporate lawyers. Or we can defend ourselves with a variety of commercial products and services. Depending on the situation, all of these are reasonable choices.

The legal regime in which any defence operates depends on two things: who is attacking you and why. Unfortunately, when you are being attacked in cyberspace, the two things you often do not know are who is attacking you and why. It is not that everything can be defined as cyberwar; it is that we are increasingly seeing warlike tactics used in broader cyberconflicts. This makes defence and national cyberdefence policy difficult.

The obvious tendency is to assume the worst. If every attack is potentially an act of war perpetrated by a foreign military, then the logical assumption is that the military needs to be in charge of all cyberdefence, and military problems beg for military solutions. This is the rhetoric we hear from many of the world's leaders: the problem is cyberwar and we are all fighting one right now. This is just not true; there is no war in cyberspace. There is an enormous amount of criminal activity, some of it organized and much of it international. There is politically motivated hacking—hacktivism—against countries, companies, organizations and individuals. There is espionage, sometimes by lone actors and sometimes by national espionage organizations. There are also offensive actions by national organizations, ranging from probing each other's cyberdefences to actual damage-causing cyberweapons like Stuxnet.

The word "war" really has two definitions: the literal definition of war which evokes guns and tanks and advancing armies, and the rhetorical definition of war as in war on crime, war on poverty, war on drugs, and war on terror. The term "cyberwar" has aspects of both literal and rhetorical war, making it a very loaded term to use when discussing cybersecurity and cyberattacks.

Words matter. To the police, we are citizens to protect. To the military, we are a population to be managed. Framing cybersecurity in terms of war reinforces the notion that we are helpless in the face of the threat, and we need a government—indeed, a military—to protect us.

The framing of the issue as a war affects policy debates around the world. From the notion of government control over the Internet, to wholesale surveillance and eavesdropping facilitation, to an Internet kill switch, to calls to eliminate anonymity—many measures proposed by different countries might make sense in wartime but not in peacetime. (Except that like the war on drugs or terror, there is no winning condition, which means placing a population in a permanent state of emergency). We are seeing a power grab in cyberspace by the world's militaries. We are in the early years of a cyberwar arms race.

Arms races stem from ignorance and fear: ignorance of the other side's capabilities and fear that its capabilities are greater than one's own. Once cyberweapons exist, there will be an impetus to use them. Stuxnet damaged networks other than its intended targets. Any military-inserted back doors in Internet systems will make us more vulnerable to criminals and hackers.

The cyberwar arms race is destabilizing. It is only a matter of time before something big happens, perhaps by the rash actions of a low-level military officer, an enthusiastic hacker who thinks he is working in his country's best interest, or by accident. If the target nation retaliates, we could find ourselves in a real cyberwar.

I am not proposing that cyberwar is complete fiction. War expands to fill all available theatres, and any future war will have a cyberspace component. It makes sense for countries to establish cyberspace commands within their militaries, and to prepare for cyberwar. Similarly, cyberespionage is not going away anytime soon. Espionage is as old as civilization, and there is simply too much good information in cyberspace for countries not to avail themselves of hacking tools to get at it.

We need to dampen the war rhetoric and increase international cybersecurity cooperation. We need to continue talking about cyberwar treaties. We need to establish rules of engagement in cyberspace, including ways to identify where attacks are coming from and clear definitions of what does or does not constitute an offensive action. We need to understand the role of cybermercenaries, and the role of non-state actors. Cyberterrorism is still a media and political myth, but there will come a time when it will not be. Lastly, we need to build resilience into our infrastructure. Many cyberattacks, regardless of origin, exploit fragilities in the Internet. The more we can reduce those, the safer we will be.

Cyberspace threats are real, but militarizing cyberspace will do more harm than good. The value of a free and open Internet is too important to sacrifice to our fears.

Categories: Cyberwar and Cyberterrorism, National Security Policy

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Resilient Systems, Inc.