Radical Instrument

IT is changing the exercise of power. Radical Instrument is picking up the signals.

Principles for defining cyberwar – a modest proposal

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After re-reading yesterday’s link from Wired, I’m more convinced that it’s time to set a more precise definition for “cyberwar,” before the term gets further muddled, misused, and manipulated by politicians. These aren’t necessarily new – the issue’s been under debate in military legal circles since at least the mid-’90s – but hype and consequences seem to be outracing the debate.

Principle #1:  A better definition of “cyberwar” should seek to inhibit rather than encourage war. Let’s start with the idea that “cyberwar” will include a set of acts, perpetuated through information systems, that by themselves legitimate an armed response. If we hope to limit armed conflict – and preserve the Internet as a forum for dialogue – we have a responsibility to keep the set of acts constituting “cyberwar” to a carefully limited domain. Which means…

Principle #2:  It isn’t cyberwar unless it’s war. References to the “digital Pearl Harbor” scenario – some of which are oddly reminiscent of Y2K fears – tend to paint a picture of cybercrime on a massive, anarchic scale. Take this excerpt from a 2000 article in the Air & Space Power Journal. It’s worth quoting in its entirety:

“One step higher in the conflict spectrum is the situation where a government agent actually denied services, corrupted data, or placed alternate data in the target country’s computer system, resulting in a shutdown of that country’s infrastructure assets (loss of power, utilities, air traffic control, etc.) potentially causing chaos and death in the target nation. We have now undoubtedly entered the arena of offensive Information Warfare (IW). Although no bombs or missiles have been dropped or launched, the target country has suffered actual, tangible damage. It would be difficult, indeed, to convince the targeted country that they were not under attack. Most likely, the “victim” state would believe that they had the authority (and perhaps a “duty”) to defend themselves under the authority of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. Surely most victim countries would perceive this as an “act of war,” “use of force,” or “act of aggression,” or whatever terminology they decided would best serve to justify their retaliatory action. Academic debate of semantics would abruptly end when news programs could broadcast images of the tangible results such as aircraft wreckage, starving city dwellers, hospital intensive care units without power, riots, et cetera, and negative attention would turn toward the aggressor state.”

The word on which this excerpt turns is in the third line:  “…potentially causing chaos and death…” It’s a dangerous qualifier. It does seem sensible to include within the realm of “cyberwar” those acts which cause death and chaos, as long as we can precisely define chaos in terms of state sovereignty. But that word “potentially” tends to loosen the causation link between the act and the consequence. “Potentially” takes us away from [U-boat blockade = British starvation] to [financial system disruption = starvation], which I’m not convinced is the same thing. A definition of cyberwar that loosens causation – that, in other words, cannot demonstrate a direct, causal relationship between an intentional cyber-act and a violent outcome – blurs the line with cybercrime, and thereby makes the potential for war easier. Which implies…

Principle #3:  Cyberwar should be attributable to cyberwarriors. Laws and conventions governing war require uniforms and markings. Military vehicles are marked as such, clearly distinguishable from, say, civil ships and aircraft. The more difficult it is to separate criminal acts from a legitimate use of force, the greater the opportunity for misattribution and retaliation…and the greater the temptation for states to engage in illegitimate uses of force.

This last point seems quaint – certainly, there’s a lag between laws and conventions defining war, and the technology used to wage it. But isn’t that the point? John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School has pointed out that the Chemical Weapons Convention offers a solid precedent for restraining a “cyber arms race,” a race which will take on velocity if we can’t get our definitions under control.

Minor addendum, part I: With reference to principle #2 – and Arquilla’s own belief in the potential for a cyber 9/11 – is it really sensible to develop terms around the scenario of an act that’s limited purely to information systems? It’s unconvincing. Such an act, even if possible to the description outlined above, doesn’t seem rational. It would likely leave most military forces intact, which means that the attacked state would preserve significant potential for a very real and damaging response. A more likely scenario seems one in which a “digital Pearl Harbor” is accompanied by an actual Pearl Harbor…in which case the digital side is just a secondary accompaniment to a very real act of war.

Minor addendum, part II: As Arquilla also points out, Russia (“ironically”) has been advocating an agreement to govern cyberwar for 13 years. This NY Times article from June highlights the differences between U.S. and Russian stances.

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Written by Mark

July 29, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Posted in Military & Security

Tagged with ,

2 Responses

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  1. […] Underlying this debate is the simple trend towards a more integrated world, in material, communications, and social networks. It’s not a flat world by any measure, but the wiring continues to be put in place. As that happens it’s going to be even more difficult to separate warfare from its effects on civil society. So it’s important that this debate continue – to ensure, at a minimum, that the use of information systems to conduct war works to inhibit rather than encourage war. […]

  2. […] use of power in cyberspace. There is near-zero attribution (officially, anyway) of activities, of tracing cyberwar back to identifiable cyberwarriors. There is a level of secrecy afforded to the cyber-environment that I’d wager tempts states […]


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