Debating Cyber Warfare – More Questions from .GOV (Part II)

In continuation of the series I promised you on high-level debates surrounding Cyber Warfare, here is the next article in a series of three. This article will be the longest in the series due to the multi-parted nature of the question. Of course the answers given to each of the questions are merely my opinions on the matter. Please feel free to comment or contact me with relevant remarks.

In how far, and in what way, are existing international Legal frameworks relevant to behavior in the Cyber domain; specifically in relation to cyber violence? 

  • [Ad Bellum] Under what circumstances can a cyber threat be considered use of force or threatening use of force, in the sense of article 2, section 4 of the UN Charter? Under what circumstances can a cyber attack be considered an armed attack  that justifies violence in self-defence based on article 51 of the UN Charter?
  • [In Bello] When does humanitarian law of war apply to behaviors in the Digital domain? Must these be linked to kinetic use of force? How would this, during such application, be given shape to the Law of War’s  principles of distinction and proportionality, and the requirement of taking precautions for safety?
  • How would Civil legal concepts such as Sovereignty and Neutrality be given shape in the Cyber Domain?

Relevant UN Charter articles:

  • Article 2, Section IV:
    All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.
  • Article 51:
    Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.

An Answer – the Right to Self Defence
Although Cyber gives a new dimension to Warfare, it is my opinion that the general application and behavior apply in the same fashion as they do under conventional warfare. It is important that one should look to the effects of cyber attacks rather than the method or the individual components therein. In the end it is the damage dealt that bears relevance to those it is inflicted upon rather than the method. For this reason the thresholds that have bearing on the various articles in the UN Charter  we have set for conventional warfare do not necessarily change because of innovation in technology, nor do  international agreements automatically become void. Under the current UN Charter, each member state has the right to actively defend itself when attacked (or threatened with attack) and I feel this right remains relevant when discussing cyber warfare. I would like to point out though, that what is typical for Cyber Warfare, but uncommon in kinetic operations, is the problem of Attribution. Not knowing who will attack, is attacking or has attacked you complicates the situation considerably. It makes all action and reaction susceptible to a fair margin of error and so any response should be carefully considered before execution.

Humanitarian principles
As far as humanitarian principles in warfare go, it is certainly conceivable that cyber attacks may directly or indirectly lead to injury or loss of life. For instance, when a cyber attack on a power plant successfully blacks out an area, this can cause all kinds of damage. Some of the more obvious risk area’s are those that affect Hospitals and Emergency Services such as Police and Ambulance services, but this is not a new aspect of warfare. Knocking out power and communications is always something that must be done with utmost care, and this advance in technology doesn’t change that. In this case a well-placed cyber attack may very well be preferred over a kinetic attack that does permanent damage. Principles of distinction between military and civilian targets, as well as proportionality should still apply when discussing the use of cyber attacks.

Civil-Legal principles
The debate surrounding legal concepts such as Sovereignty and Neutrality are the subject of much debate amongst technical, political and legal experts from many nations, and any answers to these questions are most likely susceptible to change as insight is gained over time. Many people take the approach that Cyberspace does not have physical borders, but this is not exactly true. While Cyberspace as a concept may be regarded as unbound by geography, it is held up by very real, physical networking equipment. Data flowing from one system to the next does actually cross physical space through cables, routers and maybe even airspace via satellites or Wi-Fi connections. As such, this data may be subjected to all kinds of rules and regulations imposed by the owners of the networking equipment in between points of departure and arrival. And what to say about being used as a proxy during a cyber attack? Without international understanding of the ‘rules of the game’, you may be involuntarily drawn into conflicts because one of the parties routes his cyber attacks through your networks, or even using systems that are hosted on your soil. Regardless of what position you take, it’s clear that concepts such as Sovereignty and Neutrality have a place in the debates surrounding Cyber Warfare.

Debating Cyber Warfare – Questions from .GOV

A few months ago I was engaged by a friend who had desires of starting a new foundation in the Netherlands. He surmised that the Dutch Ministry of Defence could use some help in establishing proper Cyber Doctrine. Now, a scant 6 months later, we find our group is firmly set at 7 people and the foundation has officially been established. It is called the Dutch Institute for Cyber Doctrine (NCDI) and I sincerely hope you will hear more of us in the near future.

I mention the birth of this foundation because through some proper networking we’ve been asked for input by our government with relation to Cyber Warfare. The request for information contained such interesting questions that I felt I could almost dedicate an entire article on each question, and so I did. I hope to generate some really interesting debates with these questions. Without further ado, here is the first question:

“After Land, Air, Sea and Space, Cyberspace is generally considered to be the fifth warfighting domain. Based on what political and military objectives can operational cyber capabilities be developed and deployed? Please define the nature and role of operational cyber capabilities during military operations.”

An Answer
While you’ll find a plethora of discussions in which it is still hotly debated what it all means, it is very likely that future conflicts will not be ‘pure cyber wars’ in the same way we haven’t seen ‘pure nuclear wars’  or ‘pure air wars’. Instead it is much more likely that new conflicts will contain cyber attacks or cyber espionage as part of a larger strategic plan. In fact we’ve already seen it in conflicts as early as the war in the Persian Gulf in 1991, where the famous and recently deceased Robert Morris was said to have launched the first US cyber attack. Many people now ask the question what the political and military impact is of cyber warfare, and this is a very valid question. However, it should not be confused with political and/or military motive, because nothing has really changed in that regard. War is, as Clausewitz said, the continuation of Policy through other means, and that is exactly what cyber is: just another means.

With that in mind, I feel the first half of the question is somewhat flawed. Political objectives are not usually fundamentally changed by technology, though military objectives certainly can be, and with the advent of cyber warfare it is easy to confuse or even conflate the two. So for me, the question is really “What military objectives should be the focus of operational cyber capability development?”.

The answer to this question will probably always remain difficult to answer, because the technology surrounding cyberspace is continually changing. Furthermore we find that the application of said technology is ever changing as well, making it very hard to pin down exactly if and where there are any fixed strategic points or objectives to aim exploitation development to. What is a sensible and effective angle today may be completely obsolete tomorrow. Based on what we’ve seen so far (of what we’ve been allowed to see, that is), we can assume that in the foreseeable future, cyber attacks will not have a directly kinetic component. That is to say – cyber attacks don’t (and won’t) act like bullets, bombs or missiles. As we know and understand it now, it can be used as a strictly supporting function to ongoing operations. The key word here is Information – its discovery, manipulation or denial. Cyber attacks could be succesfully applied to disable a radar array preventing a strategic bombing or insertion, or more locally to disable alarm systems on a house that needs to be breached quietly. It could (and already is) be used highly effectively to break into the networks of defence contractors and steal the highly sensitive specs of enemy technology, and in turn use that information to render them harmless to your troops. Interestingly enough, you could also use it the other way around: To make your enemies see things that aren’t there, such as by flooding their radar screen with bogus information or by infiltrating and corrupting their chain of command’s methods of communication. Whatever the application, it is important to note that virtually all these attacks are of a temporary nature. They don’t really change things permanently. As such, you should not depend on cyber attacks to give you a lasting advantage. It is highly likely that the target will, at one point, discover the attack and take steps to undo it.

The bottom line is that before being able to develop operational cyber capabilities, it is important that you understand the nature of Cyber attacks. What it is, and what it isn’t. You won’t win any wars with Cyber alone, but you may be able to increase the success rate of your missions and give your opponents a very frustrating time during ongoing operations by applying this exciting new technology.

Dutch Dept. of Defence CIO speaks on Cyber Warfare

Major General Koen Gijsbers(Apologies for my tardiness regarding the posting of this information, I was too engrossed in work to post this sooner. I had planned to see this talk of Major General Gijsbers myself, but I was denied access at the door due to too many people already being in the room. Therefore the information below is gleaned from an article on (in Dutch) and the (Dutch) slides he used during his presentation.)

Maj. General Koen Gijsbers spoke at the InfoSecurity convention in Utrecht on november 4th this year, and his take on Cyber Warfare confirms a lot of what I previously posted. Regardless of budget cuts, the Dutch Department of Defence still wants to invest in the development of cyber warfare capabilities. “Our citizens expect that if everything stops working in the Netherlands, the army will come in and help out. For that to be possible, our networks need to remain operational.” he said during his presentation. “However, we are not just investing in defence. If you only defend yourself, you’ll eventually lose the war too.”

Gijsbers went on to say that the most gain can be had in cyber defence, even though the Defence network is already heavily secured. Another major point they will be focusing on is Awareness. “The main point is that people need to be aware that there are consequences to their actions”.  For instance, USB sticks are strictly off-limits around confidential systems. In those rare cases where they are allowed, they use encrypted USB sticks. Gijsbers goes on to note that it doesn’t even matter what is on the sticks. “Whether there is useful information on the sticks is irrelevant. If someone finds a DoD USB stick they can read, even if it’s useless information, your image is damaged severely.”

When asked if the Netherlands possessed offensive cyber capabilities, the General noted that there are several countries that are being suspected of having offensive capabilities. None of them ever publicly admitted it, and he wasn’t about to be the first. He did add that you need knowledge of offensive capabilities to defend yourself properly, so we can safely assume that there will be some research on offensive capabilities going on.

Unlike some other countries, the Netherlands doesn’t have a specific battalion for cyber warfare. This may change in the future. Its one of the things currently being considered by the ministry, Gijsbers said. “In this day and age you have to compete with other capabilities, and the budget is getting cut. We may develop special cyber warfare units in the future.”.

When asked how the General felt about privacy and control issues currently being debated, he stated that the army has no intention to control the internet. “We’re not in charge of the Internet. Its just another theatre we operate in, and we have to accept that as it is.” He went on to say that the government shouldn’t try to solve every problem. “There’s a line between the government, citizens and corporate entities. We all have to chip in.”

He wasn’t opposed to cyber reservists; volunteers that help in securing systems. Estonia created such an organization of reservists after the cyber attacks in 2007, and the US also has a large core of such reservists. “I think its a great idea. Its a great idea because there are a large number of reservists that were actually trained by the army at some point, and have the capabilities to help us. The question is how to organize something like this? ” He added that military knowledge probably wouldn’t become a requirement to help out, if such an organization ever came into existence.