Cyber warfare involves the actions by a nation-state or international organization to attack and attempt to damage another nation’s computers or information networks through, for example, computer viruses or denial-of-service attacks. Intentions are notoriously difficult to figure out. In global cyberspace, they may change depending on world events and international relations. The dangers – to the people of the countries both allied and opposed – underscore the importance of international agreement on what constitutes an act of war in cyberspace and the need for clear rules of engagement.
The vulnerability of digital networks is, in many ways, an inevitable consequence of how the Internet was built. As then-Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn put it in a 2011 speech announcing our military strategy for operating in cyberspace: “The Internet was designed to be open, transparent and interoperable. Security and identity management were secondary objectives in system design. This lower emphasis on security in the internet’s initial design … gives attackers a built-in advantage.”
Among many factors, two, in particular, contribute to the growing sense of unease. One is the problem of anonymity. Those who seek to harm can easily do so at a distance, cloaked in the veil of anonymity behind false or shielded identities in the vastness of the web. With no built-in identity verification, pretending to be someone else is as easy as getting a new email address or registering a pseudonymous Facebook account. Second, and perhaps more significantly, the online world changes the boundaries of war. Unlike standard weapons of destruction, cyber warfare is harder to trace as elements like malware can be embedded into a system secretly. Often, state-sponsored attacks go unclaimed, leaving room for speculation. Then there are the occasions when hacking groups admit their crimes, but the problem is that they’re never “officially” linked to a particular state.
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