Foreign Policy Blogs

Undeterrable Cyberwar

The Grey Lady just ran an ominous piece on the undeterrable world of cyber war.

It raises a number of the very real problems with virtual warfare:

  • Cyber attacks are non-attributable – while the headline-grabbing hacks of Chinese dissidents’ Gmail accounts probably came from China, some initial evidence pointing that way is inconclusive. Those in charge of responding will not have the benefit of a smoking gun.
  • Assaults are unpredictable. Bad guys need not mass a line of tanks before commencing an attack, and you don’t get movie-style explosions to make the invasion obvious.
  • The legal ground is very murky. If an attack on you is imminent, it is well established in international law that a nation is entitled to a pre-emptive* response. But as just mentioned, you’ll never see it coming.
  • Even with your servers melting under a virtual attack, it is hard to know whether one has the right to retaliate. If my aunt’s computer has been taken over by a virus and is being used to attack the Pentagon, can I drop a Hellfire missile on her house to stop it? What if it is originating in Zimbabwe?

In Hillary’s speech last week she sternly warned potential adversaries that cyber-attackers would have to deal with “consequences and international condemnation” and that an attack against one could be seen as an attack on all.

Regrettably, if you don’t know where to bring down the Hammer of Justice, it’s hard to have a credible deterrent.

This is different from the legally dubious Bush doctrine of “preventative war” used to justify the feckless invasion of Iraq.