Cyber-warfare is coming

Cyber Attack

From Ilmar Tamm, Public Service Europe:  Various states have managed to agree on laws that govern borders, international sea and air space, even outer space – but now we are faced with the task of adapting or creating laws and precedents for cyberspace. As in outer space, there are no borders in cyberspace – but unlike in outer space, it does not take many resources to enter cyberspace. Any individual with computer skills and an internet connection can act in cyberspace. It’s like the American wild west, where anyone with a horse and a gun could be an outlaw. The horses have been replaced with computers, and gun skills with knowledge of the web.

So how can we tame the wild west of today? There is no denying that one of the overarching problems is a lack of experience and precedent. To help address this issue, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation cooperative cyber defence centre of excellence – or NATO CCD COE – is sponsoring and actively participating in the writing of the manual on international law applicable to cyber-warfare – or MILCW. This is expected to be published by the end of 2012. The manual is meant to address all the legal issues under a framework of both international use-of-force law and international humanitarian law. In addition, it examines related problems such as sovereignty, state responsibility and neutrality. We are confident that this manual will help the international community answer many unanswered questions, especially those regarding retaliation.

But every legal issue in cyberspace is connected to others. Retaliation is impossible if one does not know the attacker and identifying actors in cyberspace is extremely difficult. An attacker can be in Europe, but route his attack through servers in Australia, Asia and America, making it nearly impossible to trace the originator. In fact, it becomes very easy to misattribute attacks by attaching responsibility for an attack on a possibly hijacked computer and its owner. Attribution, in short, is an enormous difficulty. This is one of the reasons why cooperation is crucial for cyber-defence – international cooperation and cooperation between the public and private sectors. Because so many critical infrastructures are run by private businesses rather than the government, it is critical that incident information is shared. Cyber-malefactors share information and tactics to their enormous benefit. It is important that, on our side, we do the same for defence and early warning dissemination.

Because governments do not have the financial resources to hire the top IT minds, strategies must be developed for how to utilise their expertise. The Estonian Cyber Defence League provides a useful model in which cyber-experts volunteer in their free time to work on cyber-defence issues, and are willing to contribute to the defence effort when governmental institutions are attacked. Raoul Chiesa, at our annual conference in June 2011, provided another innovative suggestion: maybe governments and the private sector should try to lure hackers to our side? It seems unwise not to try to win their expertise and experience.

Colonel Ilmar Tamm is director of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation cooperative cyber defence centre of excellence. This article was first published in’s sister title Public Service Review: European Union Cyber-warfare – the next frontier.   (graphic: Matt Murphy/Economist)

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