Science Fiction No More: Cyber Warfare and the United States

Article excerpt


Faced with the increased propensity for cyber tools to damage state computer networks and power grids with the click of a mouse, politicians and academics from around the world have called for the creation of a Geneva Convention equivalent in cyberspace. Yet, members of United Nations Security Council continue to disagree as to what cyber activities might rise to the level of an armed attack under the existing Law of Armed Conflict. Activities once limited to cyber espionage, and outside the reach of international law, are now the very same tools utilized in cyber operations to disable state communications and wreak havoc on state infrastructure. Wars, traditionally waged between nations and clearly defined groups, can now be fought behind the veil of anonymity inherent of the Internet. While acts of war have yet to happen openly on the Internet, accusations have already been made against Russia for the 2007 cyber attacks on Estonia and against Israel for the Stuxnet worm unleashed on Iran's nuclear reactors. Just as aerial bombing and nuclear arms revolutionized the battlefield, cyber attacks, and the mechanisms behind them, stand poised as the next evolution in weapons of war and any multilateral treaty must take these facts into consideration.


Throughout history, technology has revolutionized the manner in which wars are fought. In the eighteenth century, gunpowder brought an end to the days of castles and knights, ushering in a period of battalions and infantrymen. Two hundred years later, the invention of the aircraft gave rise to the Hague Rules of Air Warfare after the widespread destruction caused by strategic bombing campaigns during the First World War. The atrocities wrought by the atom bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki still burn in the memories of many and is responsible for the proliferation of espionage and intelligence gathering continuing to this day in our international community. Now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, information technology stands to once again change the landscape of war. While the Internet transformed society in the nineties by allowing computer users to access information across the globe with the click of a mouse, the spread of information technology comes at a cost. The more people become dependent on the Internet, and the more data we move from paper to digital format, then the more vulnerable our society becomes to a cyber attack.

Formerly the substance of science fiction, cyber warfare is one of the most serious national security threats in recent years. Cyber warfare covers the doctrine regarding the tactics, techniques, and procedures of Computer Network Operations (CNO) including attacks, defense, and exploitation, plus the new aspect of social engineering. (1) While the technology used in cyber warfare has been traditionally characteristic of espionage activities in the last twenty years, this same technology is capable of creating real damage to a nation-state. In 2007, Estonia suffered the first ever reported state-wide incident of cyber assault when Estonia's banks, online newspapers, and government communications were shut down for two weeks by a group of Russian hackers who were believed to be tied to the Kremlin. (2) One of the most wired societies in the world, the people of Estonia quickly turned to the streets in riot, leaving at least one person dead and 150 people injured. (3) Similar attacks predated the weeks leading up to the 2008 Georgian bombings by Russia, but it was not until the United States Department of Defense ("DoD") suffered a massive compromise of military defense networks that the United States issued a Cyberspace Policy Review and established the United States Cyber Command ("USCYBERCOM") to protect DoD networks. (4)

Despite various initial steps to deter a massive cyber attack on DoD networks, the United States is largely unprepared to respond to an act of cyber warfare. In fact, the United States military does not even have a definition for cyber warfare nor does the legal community understand how it applies to legal norms, specifically the Law of Armed Conflict. …