Consequently, cyber attacks should be construed as acts of war. Are we prepared to respond accordingly?
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War in the age of technological integration and globalization has eliminated the right of weapons to label war and, with regard to the new starting point, has realigned the relationship of weapons to war, while the appearance of weapons of new concepts, and particularly new concepts of weapons, has gradually blurred the face of war. Does a single “hacker” attack count as a hostile act or not?…
[Technological progress and globalization] means that all weapons and technology can be superimposed at will, it means that all the boundaries lying between the two worlds of war and non-war, of military and non-military, will be totally destroyed, and it also means that many of the current principles of combat will be modified, and even the rules of war may need to be rewritten…
The battlefield is everywhere.…As we see it, a single man-made stock market crash, a single computer virus invasion or a single rumor or scandal that exposes the leaders of an enemy country on the Internet, all can be included in the ranks of new-concept weapons.
Liang and Xiangsui aren’t just theorists. Their book was semi-official, endorsed by high-ranking Chinese generals. And they have an eminently realistic view of modern war and one of its means, cyber war. One part of China’s military strategy is sha shou jian: the “assassin’s mace” strategy of unconventional warfare. A 2006 Pentagon report on the Chinese military said that Chinese leaders, recognizing their apparent disadvantages in conventional war, have invested heavily in asymmetric warfare to create the ability to attack and knock out an enemy quickly by unconventional means:
We assess that this conclusion might have given rise to a priority emphasis on asymmetric programs and systems to leverage China’s advantages while exploiting the perceived vulnerabilities of potential opponents—the so-called Assassin’s Mace (sha shou jian) programs.
China isn’t alone in investing in cyberwar. India, Russia, the U.S., and Iran are also heavily invested in it. Some, like America, are investing in defense. Others, especially China and Russia, are also heavily invested in offensive cyberwar.
The only conclusion we can reach is that a computer is as much a weapon as a rifle, a cyber attack as much an act of war as dropping a bomb in the middle of a city. In the West, and in the law of warfare, those concepts have not yet taken root.
THE CHINESE COLONELS’ ideas have already been put into action by Putin’s Russia and by an anonymous cyber warrior who planted a computer worm in Iran’s nuclear program computers. Those actions were not labeled acts of war only because Estonia and Georgia didn’t want open war with Russia and because the law of war doesn’t label them as such.
The most famous malware was the “Stuxnet” program which someone (or, more likely, some nation’s computer warriors) slipped into the computers that run the Iranian nuclear weapons project. It caused significant damage that may still be unfolding.
Stuxnet is a computer “worm”: a highly sophisticated piece of software that, properly designed and placed, can cause machinery controlled by the computers it infects to run destructively. Worms disable security software, duplicate themselves, and spread to other computers networked with the one infected. Some can add “bot” software that will reach out and capture other networks to spread themselves further.
According to several news reports, the Stuxnet worm made the Iranian nuclear centrifuges spin wildly out of control while causing the Iranians running the centrifuges to see—on their gauges and computers—that all was running normally. Some reports, which may be apocryphal, indicate that Stuxnet was capable of mutating: changing itself to continue damaging the nuclear centrifuges even after it was detected and Iranian computer scientists believed it had been neutralized.
Cyberwar isn’t confined to Eastern Europe and Iran. In June 2007, the Chinese PLA cyberwarriors hacked into the Army’s Pentagon e-mail system, causing it to shut down briefly. The Chinese have the most active cyber-espionage effort in the world. (Spyware—software which reveals restricted data stored on computers—is one of the most common forms of malware.)
One ring of Chinese hackers, code-named “Titan Rain” by U.S. investigators, was responsible for years of cyber espionage targeting U.S. military computer networks. And although the “Titan Rain” group may or may not still be operating, U.S. experts estimate that Chinese cyber espionage is responsible for hundreds of attempts to penetrate U.S. military, intelligence, and commercial networks every day.
WERE THE RUSSIAN cyber attacks on Estonia and Georgia acts of war? Was the Stuxnet virus one? Not according to U.S. law or the Geneva Conventions.
Title 18 of the U.S. Code defines acts that comprise federal crimes. But in Section 2331 of Title 18, we find the only definition of an act of war under U.S. law. Section 2331 defines it as, “…any act occurring in the course of: (A) declared war; (B) armed conflict, whether or not war has been declared, between two or more nations; or (C) armed conflict between military forces of any origin….” Nothing in that definition would include a cyber attack. The Geneva Conventions, too, speak only of armed conflict.
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