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?"
According to Reuters, the decision was made in discussions between the two countries this week. The extension of the treaty would mean that a cyber-attack on either country would be considered an attack on both.
Exactly what this means in practice is less clear: practically every government with a connection to the Internet is subject to pretty much constant attack, and both Australia and America regularly accuse China and North Korea of playing host to many such attacks (China just as regularly denies any government involvement in Internet-borne attacks).
According to Reuters, it's the first time any non-NATO defense pact has extended to the Internet. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta is quoted as saying "cyber is the battlefield of the future."
Cyber War is a fast and enjoyable read. This means you could give the book to your non-techy friends, and they'd understand most of it, enjoy all of it, and learn a lot from it. Unfortunately, while there's a lot of smart discussion and good information in the book, there's also a lot of fear-mongering and hyperbole as well. Since there's no easy way to tell someone what parts of the book to pay attention to and what parts to take with a grain of salt, I can't recommend it for that purpose. This is a pity, because parts of the book really need to be widely read and discussed.
The fear-mongering and hyperbole is mostly in the beginning. There, the authors describe the cyberwar of novels. Hackers disable air traffic control, delete money from bank accounts, cause widespread blackouts, release chlorine gas from chemical plants, and -- this is my favorite -- remotely cause your printer to catch on fire. It's exciting and scary stuff, but not terribly realistic. Even their discussions of previous "cyber wars" -- Estonia, Georgia, attacks against U.S. and South Korea on July 4, 2009 -- are full of hyperbole. A lot of what they write is unproven speculation, but they don't say that.
Better is the historical discussion of the formation of the U.S. Cyber Command, but there are important omissions. There’s nothing about the cyberwar fear being stoked that accompanied this: by the NSA's General Keith Alexander -- who became the first head of the command -- or by the NSA's former director, current military contractor, by Mike McConnell, who’s Senior Vice President at Booz Allen Hamilton, and by others. By hyping the threat, the former has amassed a lot of power, and the latter a lot of money. Cyberwar is the new cash cow of the military-industrial complex, and any political discussion of cyberwar should include this as well.
Also interesting is the discussion of the asymmetric nature of the threat. A country like the United States, which is heavily dependent on the Internet and information technology, is much more vulnerable to cyber-attacks than a less-developed country like North Korea. This means that a country like North Korea would benefit from a cyberwar exchange: they'd inflict far more damage than they'd incur. This also means that, in this hypothetical cyberwar, there would be pressure on the U.S. to move the war to another theater: air and ground, for example. Definitely worth thinking about.
Most important is the section on treaties. Clarke and Knake have a lot of experience with nuclear treaties, and have done considerable thinking about how to apply that experience to cyberspace. The parallel isn't perfect, but there's a lot to learn about what worked and what didn't, and -- more importantly -- how things worked and didn't. The authors discuss treaties banning cyberwar entirely (unlikely), banning attacks against civilians, limiting what is allowed in peacetime, stipulating no first use of cyber weapons, and so on. They discuss cyberwar inspections, and how these treaties might be enforced. Since cyberwar would be likely to result in a new worldwide arms race, one with a more precarious trigger than the nuclear arms race, this part should be read and discussed far and wide. Sadly, it gets lost in the rest of the book. And, since the book lacks an index, it can be hard to find any particular section after you're done reading it.
In the last chapter, the authors lay out their agenda for the future, which largely I agree with.
We need to start talking publicly about cyber war. This is certainly true. The threat of cyberwar is going to consume the sorts of resources we shoveled into the nuclear threat half a century ago, and a realistic discussion of the threats, risks, countermeasures, and policy choices is essential. We need more universities offering degrees in cyber security, because we need more expertise for the entire gamut of threats.
We need to better defend our military networks, the high-level ISPs, and our national power grid. Clarke and Knake call this the "Defensive Triad." The authors and I disagree strongly on how this should be done, but there is no doubt that it should be done. The two parts of that triad currently in commercial hands are simply too central to our nation, and too vulnerable, to be left insecure. And their value is far greater to the nation than it is to the corporations that own it, which means the market will not naturally secure it. I agree with the authors that regulation is necessary.
We need to reduce cybercrime. Even without the cyber warriors bit, we need to do that. Cybercrime is bad, and it's continuing to get worse. Yes, it's hard. But it's important.
We need international cyberwar treaties. I couldn't agree more about this. We do. We need to start thinking about them, talking about them, and negotiating them now, before the cyberwar arms race takes off. There are all kind of issues with cyberwar treaties, and the book talks about a lot of them. However full of loopholes they might be, their existence will do more good than harm.
We need more research on secure network designs. Again, even without the cyberwar bit, this is essential. We need more research in cybersecurity, a lot more.
We need decisions about cyberwar -- what weapons to build, what offensive actions to take, who to target -- to be made as far up the command structure as possible. Clarke and Knake want the president to personally approve all of this, and I agree. Because of its nature, it can be easy to launch a small-scale cyber attack, and it can be easy for a small-scale attack to get out of hand and turn into a large-scale attack. We need the president to make the decisions, not some low-level military officer ensconced in a computer-filled bunker late one night.
This is great stuff, and a fine starting place for a national policy discussion on cybersecurity, whether it be against a military, espionage, or criminal threat. Unfortunately, for readers to get there, they have to wade through the rest of the book. And unless their bullshit detectors are already well-calibrated on this topic, I don't want them reading all the hyperbole and fear-mongering that comes before, no matter how readable the book.
Note: I read Cyber War in April, when it first came out. I wanted to write a review then, but found that while my Kindle is great for reading, it’s terrible for flipping back and forth looking for bits and pieces to write about in a review. So I let the review languish. Finally, I borrowed a paper copy from my local library.
The United States has begun talks with Russia and a United Nations arms control committee about strengthening Internet security and limiting military use of cyberspace.
The Russians have held that the increasing challenges posed by military activities to civilian computer networks can be best dealt with by an international treaty, similar to treaties that have limited the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The United States had resisted, arguing that it was impossible to draw a line between the commercial and military uses of software and hardware.
A State Department official, who was not authorized to speak about the talks and requested anonymity, disputed the Russian characterization of the American position. While the Russians have continued to focus on treaties that may restrict weapons development, the United States is hoping to use the talks to increase international cooperation in opposing Internet crime. Strengthening defenses against Internet criminals would also strengthen defenses against any military-directed cyberattacks, the United States maintains.
The American interest in reopening discussions shows that the Obama administration, even in absence of a designated Internet security chief, is breaking with the Bush administration, which declined to talk with Russia about issues related to military attacks using the Internet.
I'm not sure what can be achieved here, but talking is always good.
Cryptography has zero-knowledge proofs, where Alice can prove to Bob that she knows something without revealing it to Bob. Here's something similar from the real world. It's a research project to allow weapons inspectors from one nation to verify the disarming of another nation's nuclear weapons without learning any weapons secrets in the process, such as the amount of nuclear material in the weapon.