Cyber Warfare, What Is It?

In a report recently published by McAfee, researchers examined the concept of cyber warfare, highlighting a number of nations are actively preparing for war in cyberspace.

As the United States and other nations think about cybersecurity, states will need to develop a common understanding of what constitutes cyber warfare.

Warfare, Clausewitz’s infamous “politics by other means,” is generally defined as a state actor using force against another state or states for political gain. In the case of attacks in cyberspace, however, a number of problems exist. Attribution, one of the necessary components in determining who to strike back against, is remarkably difficult in cyberspace. It is difficult to prove that a government entity was involved in a cyber attack against another nation. While it is possible to trace the source of an attack back to a specific country, it is much more difficult to attribute it directly to a government source.

Another area of consideration is how bad does a cyber attack have to be to constitute cyber warfare? To date, there is no evidence of any cyber attack actually causing physical casualties. The most recent, large scale incidents in Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008, disrupted Internet traffic to websites, but did not kill anyone. Is this severe enough for launch a counterattack or declare war on a nation?

It is clear that the age of “cyber war” is at hand. The United States has already engaged in offensive cyber warfare against insurgent targets in Iraq in 2007. Cyberspace presently serves as another avenue of attack, particularly in concert with other, more conventional or traditional attack vectors. However, will it be possible to reach the point that warfare will take place exclusively in cyberspace and the more traditional areas of “warfare” are not needed to have a “cyber war”? How do you develop a policy for counterattacks? What happens if you counterattack and attack the wrong person or group? How do you justify a counterattack to the international community under traditional concepts of “just war theory”?

As governments look toward the future uses of cyberspace to conduct warfare, these are some of the key questions that will need to be answered. A good starting point would be moving toward an international framework to outline some of these issues (though that approach also poses some significant problems). Some countries have already claimed if they come under cyber attack, they reserve the right to respond with conventional force. There needs to be common ground on what constitutes cyber warfare to mitigate the risk of armed conflict over attacks waged in cyberspace.

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