Friday, May 16, 2008

Recommended Reading: Carpet Bombing in Cyberspace

The title is a misnomer - this article is a well written and thought provoking discussion on how the U.S. might build an offensive military cyber capability and what the ramifications would be of its use.

Col. Charles W. Williamson III wrote the feature article in Armed Forces Journal and begins with a discussion of the changing aspect of cyberspace in national defense. It gives several very good comparisons of the currently situation with previous challenges in military history - from Troy to WWII:
"Today, every Army outpost in America traces its roots to the walls, guards and gates of Troy. But none of today’s forts relies for boundary defense on anything more substantial than a chain-link fence, even though the base may contain billions of dollars in military equipment and the things most important to the soldiers — their families. The U.S. intends for defense of its “forts” to occur thousands of miles away. We intend to take the fight to the enemy before the enemy has a chance to come here. So, if the fortress ultimately failed, does history provide a different model?"
Col. Williamson reports on suggestions for creating a military botnet using existing Air Force systems to provide an U.S. offensive cyber capability and discusses defensive requirements.

However, probably the most interesting part of the article is the discussion of the pros and cons of developing and using this type of offensive capability:

"Lawyers have been known to trot out a “parade of horribles” to demonstrate weaknesses in an idea. These issues are difficult but not insurmountable. But before addressing them, it is important to note what the botnet is not.

"The botnet is not a replacement for law enforcement action or diplomacy. If the harm coming to U.S. systems is low enough that a military response is not required, the U.S. must default to traditional responses that respect the sovereignty of other nations, just as we expect them to respect our sovereignty and the primacy of our responsibility to stop harm coming to them from the U.S. With that understanding, what challenges remain?"

The article goes on to discuss several of the key concerns with offensive cyber warfare and attempts to address them. The most critical of these is The Difficulty in Identifying Source and Motive of Politically Motivated Computer Crimes. Col. Williamson writes:

"The truly difficult problems come in defending against attack from devices adversaries have captured from U.S. or allies’ civilians. Generally, the U.S. military is not going to attack a U.S. private computer. Harm coming from one of those machines will first be treated as a crime, and military forces should stay out of the situation in accordance with the Posse Comitatus Act. However, Title 10 of the United States Code, Section 333, allows the president to order use of the military in the U.S. under tightly controlled conditions when civil authorities are overborne.

"More challenging is the problem of an attack coming from an ally’s civilian computers. Obviously, the U.S. would seek allies’ cooperation if at all possible, but we could be in a position of launching an attack on a nation whom we have sworn to protect in a mutual defense pact. Together, the U.S. and its allies can reduce this risk by cooperating to maximize computer security. If we attack them as a matter of proportionate response, it would only be because computers in their territory are attacking us.

"The biggest challenge will be political. How does the U.S. explain to its best friends that we had to shut down their computers? The best remedy for this is prevention. The U.S. and its allies need to engage in a robust joint endeavor to improve net defense and intelligence to minimize this risk."

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the author, it is refreshing to see a well thought-out and nicely argued discussion on the topic of cyber warfare.

Thanks to Gareth Gange for the the pointer to this article.

Carpet bombing in cyberspace

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