Waging (cyber)war in peacetime

Editor’s note: In this post, the second in a series drawing from Fergus Hanson’s new book, “Internet Wars: The Struggle for Power in the 21st Century,” Hanson makes the case that the United States has a strong interest in leading a more robust global discussion on cyberwarfare as cyberattacks in times of peace increase. A version of this piece appears on the Lowy Institute’s blog The Interpreter.

It was only mid-2009, when the U.S. secretary of defense ordered the establishment of a dedicated Cyber Command. Now more than 100 countries have military and intelligence cyberwarfare units. In the words of then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, cyber has become “one of the most serious threats to national security.” A key problem is the absence of well-accepted norms of behavior spanning both their use in conflicts and, more concerning, a broad spectrum of peacetime scenarios.

Russia was first to synchronize cyberattacks with a ground offensive when it invaded Georgia in 2008 and there is no doubt cyber will be integrated into future conflicts. Less clear are the appropriate applications. International law suggests attacks should be proportionate and limit civilian casualties. However, the Internet makes civilian targets the easiest to strike and in many instances causalities are not immediate. For example, disabling an electricity grid during summer might lead to deaths through heat exhaustion.

Responding appropriately to cyberattacks

Also unclear is the appropriate response. If a cyberattack is deadly or enormously destructive, is a conventional military response justified? And if the attacked country has only a limited cyber capability is it justified in reverting to a conventional response at an even lower level of severity? The ease of launching disruptive cyberattacks also makes them tempting, low cost ways for third party states to get involved, and perhaps, allies of the attacked state to launch counter-cyberattacks in response.

The nature of cyberwarfare also means attacks will not always come from states. A well-organized diaspora population located in a third country (or spread across several) could launch a cyberattack during a conflict. If this population was in a friendly state, a law enforcement response would seem likely, but if it was in an unfriendly state, a range of other response options might be on the table depending on the severity of the attack. As the director of National Intelligence noted in his statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, it can also be difficult to distinguish between state and non-state actors within the same country, further complicating a decision on the appropriate response.

State-backed efforts to agree on norms of behavior have begun, but are still in their early stages. One wordily named forum is the U.N. Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security. This formation was established last year “to study, with a view to promoting common understandings…including norms, rules or principles of responsible behavior of States.” In June 2015, it offered recommendations. Many of these were sensible, such as the suggestion: “A State should not conduct or knowingly support ICT activity contrary to its obligations under international law that intentionally damages critical infrastructure.” Unfortunately, the characterization of some of the recommendations as norms was more aspirational than founded in practice considering they are being breached on a daily basis.

In his statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, characterized the attacks as a “growing reality” and noted: “foreign actors are reconnoitering and developing access to U.S. critical infrastructure systems, which might be quickly exploited for disruption if an adversary’s intent became hostile.” Key threat actors named were Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, the latter two noted for having “possibly more disruptive intent.”

Conducting cyberattacks during peacetime

Cyberattacks should now be expected during times of war. Of far more concern though is the emerging norm in favor of conducting cyberattacks during peacetime. In 2012, U.K.’s former Minister of State for the Armed Forces Nick Harvey even made the case to the Shangri-La Dialogue that cyberattacks were “quite a civilized option.”

Practice would suggest several states agree. In 2012, it was revealed the United States had been targeting Iran’s nuclear program with cyberattacks: It was the first time a cyberattack had turned hot, doing physical real-world damage. In retaliation, Iran launched a major attack in August 2012 on the world’s largest energy company, Saudi Aramco.

North Korea has also been active, attacking South Korean banks and broadcasters in March 2013. In November 2014, it struck again, targeting Sony’s spoof movie, “The Interview,” about the assassination of the North Korean leader. The attackers used the threat of terrorism to persuade theater chains in the United States to pull out of screening the film.

As President Obama said: “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like, or news reports that they don’t like.”

These attacks didn’t lead to any deaths, but that seems unlikely to last. Major attacks on critical infrastructure could easily result in many, making escalation to traditional military options possible. Cyberattacks may have appeared to be a soft, civilized option when not everyone had them, but with over 100 states now having military and intelligence cyberwarfare units and cyber capabilities increasing, their more benign nature is unlikely to last or to escape the pitfalls of miscalculation and escalation.

As the world’s leading advanced, open economy the United States is vulnerable to cyberattack, including on critical infrastructure. It has a strong interest in leading a much more robust global discussion that will agree on norms of behavior and challenge the emerging norm in favor of using cyber weapons in times of peace.

Read the first part in the series, “Big issues facing the Internet: Economic espionage,” and the next part in the series, “The organized millions online.”