Newspaper article The Canadian Press

NATO Struggles to Define Collective Defence in the Age of Cyberwarfare

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

NATO Struggles to Define Collective Defence in the Age of Cyberwarfare

Article excerpt

NATO plans response to cyberattacks


LONDON, England - Keystrokes could soon replace Kalashnikovs as the harbinger of future wars once NATO leaders endorse an updated policy that places catastrophic cyberattacks in the same league as real-world bombs and bullets.

A major digital assault against any of the alliance's 28 members would have the potential to trigger a response under NATO's collective defence clause, according to a revised policy that's expected to get final blessing at this week's summit in Wales.

The concern came into sharp focus last week with reports of a major cyberattack on U.S. banks which defence officials blamed on Russia.

The revised policy, crafted earlier this year as the crisis in Ukraine unfolded, was quietly approved by NATO defence ministers in June. For the first time, it paves the way for members to retaliate against cyberattacks with measures that could include the use of conventional military forces.

While NATO has always informally retained that right, the policy codifies the practice in what's being seen as an attempt to minimize the time it takes to make important political decisions in a crisis.

The policy will be on the agenda later this week as NATO leaders gather in Cardiff for their annual summit meeting. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's plane touched down in London on Tuesday in advance of the talks, which go Thursday and Friday.

But critical questions remain unclear, say experts who have tracked development of the plan.

When does an attack in cyberspace constitute an act of war? And should Western allies adopt an offensive posture to counter the growing, sophisticated capabilities of adversaries such as Russia and China?

Observers say the decisions being taken this week in Wales could lay down markers for possible future conflicts and have far-reaching implications for NATO's all-for-one, one-for-all strategy.

The policy does not spell out what the threshold of damage must be in order for a nation to call for retaliation, nor does it prescribe what NATO's collective response should be.

Those are issues that will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, said Karla Tothova-Jordan, a cyberwarfare expert at the Atlantic Council's centre for international security in Washington.

"It is purposefully ambiguous because, as anyone at NATO will tell you, (the response to an attack) will be a political decision," said Tothova-Jordan, whose background is in international law.

Spelling out a clear threshold would also encourage adversaries, such as Russia, to calibrate their attacks to inflict just enough damage to avoid retaliation, she added.

"If you say: 'You take down our ATMs, it is Article 5,' then they will always find a way to play just below that level," she said. "They will always find a way to be a nuisance and play just below that threshold. …

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