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US military's cyberwar rules 'ill-formed,' says panel

And 'undeveloped.' And 'highly uncertain'

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The United States government has yet to form a coherent policy for engaging in warfare that involves attacks on a country's electrical power grids and other critical infrastructure, according to a non-profit group of scientists and policy advisors.

They called on policy makers to actively forge rules for how and when the military goes about mounting offensive and defensive acts of cyber warfare.

"Today's policy and legal framework for guiding and regulating the US use of cyberattack is ill-formed, undeveloped, and highly uncertain," the report, published by the National Academy of Sciences, states. "Secrecy has impeded widespread understanding and debate about the nature and implications of US cyberattack."

As a result, many nuances of cyberwar have remained poorly understood, even as the military actively prepares for it. They include the high degree of anonymity of those who carry out such attacks, making it hard to identify those who perpetrate them. Such attacks also result in much more uncertain outcomes than traditional warfare, making it hard to predict success and collateral damage.

The report comes just days before the Obama administration is expected to unveil a comprehensive plan for responding to attacks on US military networks, power grids, and other networks considered vital to national security. It was prepared by members of the academy's Committee on Offensive Information Warfare. They include William A. Owens, a former vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff; Kenneth W. Dam, deputy secretary in the Department of Treasury under President George W. Bush; and William O. Studeman, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

It is the latest sober reminder that the rules of cyberwar are significantly different than those of traditional warfare. Specifically, it cautions that "enduring unilateral dominance in cyberspace is neither realistic nor achievable by the United States." It also states that "Deterrence of cyberattacks by the threat of in-kind response has limited applicability."

The report, a summary of which is available here (PDF), goes on to recommend the US government engage in a "broad, unclassified national debate and discussion about cyberattack policy." ®

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