The fog of (cyber) war

Cybermilitias, black hat hackers and other non-nation-state bad guys blur the lines on the virtual battlefield.

Analysts and strategists gathered at the Cyber Warfare 2009 conference in London last January were grappling with some thorny problems associated with the cyberaggression threat. One that proved particularly vexing was the matter of exactly what constitutes cyberwarfare under international law. There's no global agreement on the definitions of cyberwarfare or cyberterrorism, so how does a nation conform to the rule of law if it's compelled to respond to a cyberattack?

Back in the U.S. trenches, drawing up a legal battle plan is indeed proving to be extraordinarily complex. Those definitions are especially elusive when you consider that no one can even be sure who the potential combatants are.

"There is some real work that needs to be done, not only in the U.S., but globally, to think about what is a use of force or an act of war in cyberspace," says Paul Kurtz, a partner at Good Harbor Consulting LLC in Arlington, Va., and a former senior director for critical infrastructure protection on the White House's Homeland Security Council.

The need to establish global norms about what is acceptable behavior in cyberspace, he says, is complicated by the fact that "the weapons are not just in the hands of nation-states. They're essentially in everybody's hands."

Steven Chabinsky
Steven Chabinsky

"Laws of war would forbid targeting purely civilian infrastructure," adds Steven Chabinsky, senior cyberadvisor to the director of national intelligence. "But terrorists, of course, don't limit themselves by the Geneva Conventions."

Time, effort and expertise

Further fogging up the battlefield is the fact that it's nearly impossible to identify all of the potential targets. It is possible to conduct a threat assessment, however, and there appears to be general consensus in the cyberdefense community that the biggest threat in terms of scale is presented by nation-states.

"Cyberattacks which seek to manipulate [an adversary's] critical infrastructures would take more time, effort and expertise than mere data theft," says Kenneth Geers, U.S. representative to the Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia. "But computer network defenders should understand that time, effort and expertise are resources that militaries and foreign intelligence services often have in abundance."

Analysts and former intelligence officials, including Kurtz, say that, not surprisingly, China and Russia top the list of countries with highly developed cyberwarfare capabilities. Kurtz also named Iran and North Korea as countries with known cyberwarfare aspirations.

While Chabinsky declined to be specific because of concerns about compromising intelligence-gathering methods, he affirmed that the U.S. has identified "a number of sophisticated nation-state actors who we believe have the capability to bring down portions of our critical infrastructure." Fortunately, he added, "we don't think they have the intent to do so, [since] our country would respond accordingly, and not necessarily symmetrically through cyber means."

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