Why the Dogs of Cyberwar stay leashed

Can of worms

Opinion As the U.S. and U.K. campaign to "shock and awe" the Iraqi leadership and population continues, as "bunker buster" bombs hit the Iraqi Presidential palaces and coalition forces attempt to disrupt the command and control of the Iraqi military, one widely-reported offensive capability is nowhere in sight: the United States has not yet officially used the tools of cyberwarfare.

The U.S. military has reportedly developed impressive offensive cyberwar capabilities, including the ability to use microwave or other electronic impulses to disrupt or destroy electronic components. If this is true, why have we not yet seen an all out cyberwar?

That's not to say we haven't seen any action in cyberspace. Sometimes individual citizens use hacker-style techniques to attack accessible sites associated with an opposing country's regime -- like "patriotic" U.S. citizens hacking Iraqi government sites. But a wartime military cyber attack would look completely different from these amateur efforts, and may use entirely different tools.

The goal of a cyber attack might be not mere disruption -- but destruction. It may be massive misinformation. It may be cooption. Thus, a cyber attack may go after DNS servers and spoof official government sites, as a propaganda mechanism. It may take the form of the mythic HERF (High Energy Radio Frequency) guns, or microwave bombs, or truly malicious polymorphic viruses or worms designed to destroy networks. Conventional defenses may not prevent such attacks -- although good backup and disaster recovery practices may minimize damage.

Much of the hand wringing over the legality of these tactics has revolved around their use in the absence of armed conflict. Is a cyber attack an act of war? Is cyber espionage likewise an act in violation of international law? But as the bombs fall, and the shooting war (declared or undeclared) begins, these questions are ultimately left behind, and the same rules for armed conflict govern cyber attacks.

These rules are much clearer, but, paradoxically, they probably make cyber attacks illegal.

This may seem counterintuitive. If it is okay to bomb an infrastructure into the stone age, why can't you "logic bomb" them out of the information age? The answer lies in the nature of the targets and the weapons chosen. Under the law of armed conflict, the use of force -- and all out cyberwar is likely a "use of force" -- must follow particular patterns. A warrior may not deliberately target non-combatants for attack. The use of force must be "proportional" to objectives, and reasonable efforts must be taken to minimize collateral damage.

Glass Houses

For cyberwar, this presents problems. First, the vast majority of the vulnerable infrastructure (electrical generation and distribution, water, transportation, financial services, telecommunications) are likely owned or operated by the private sector -- noncombatants, by definition. And the vast majority of this infrastructure is used by noncombatants as well. The same telecommunications system that carries military command and control communications probably supports civilian emergency medical services as well.

It may not be possible to launch cyber attacks that are effective against the military that don't also have dramatic consequences for noncombatants. Attacks of so-called "SCADA" systems -- those that control things like dams, nuclear power plants, air traffic control systems, and even street traffic lights -- could result in thousands of deaths to civilians.

There are other reasons why the U.S. may forgo a cyber attack in Iraq. It probably serves U.S. and U.K. interests to keep as much of the infrastructure intact for the time being. For tactical reasons, U.S. forces want to maintain lines of communication, and minimize disruption of the civilian population in the opening phases of this conflict. And in the long run, anything that is destroyed will have to be rebuilt.

Finally, it would set a precedent that could come back to haunt the U.S.

The U.S. and Western nations are much more dependent on electronic infrastructures than lesser developed countries, so they are rightly reluctant to establish a legal precedent that permits cyberwarfare. Cyberwar is asymmetric, which means it benefits lesser military powers as much as, or even more than, military goliaths. Nobody expects Iraqi B52's to fly over Washington, D.C., but a handful of Iraqi computer scientists (or scientists bought with Iraqi oil money) could launch a cyber attack -- at least to some degree -- against U.S. targets.

There is an old saying about a can of worms -- the only way to close it, is to use a bigger can. Unleashing a cyberwar anywhere would leave us with a can of worms the size of Texas. ©SecurityFocus Online

SecurityFocus columnist Mark D. Rasch, J.D., is the Senior Vice President and Chief Security Counsel at Solutionary Inc. He lives in McLean, Virginia.

Sponsored: How to determine if cloud backup is right for your servers