Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 18, 2008

When is a Cyber Attack an Act of War?

Filed under: Cybersecurity,International HLS,Strategy — by Jonah Czerwinski on August 18, 2008

First, a sincere thank you to PJ Crowley, James Carafano, Clark Ervin, and Peter J. Brown for their contributions to HLSwatch during this past week. James’ piece on the cyber attacks conducted on Georgia during its confrontation with Russia over South Ossetia raised questions about not only who was to blame, but how Georgia should respond.

Both The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal ran stories this past week about how cyber attacks on government and private sector entities of Georgia are invoking a debate about whether offensive measures in cyber space amount to acts of war. Because the cyber attacks occurred during the military offensive between Russia and Georgia, it begs the question about whether and how a government should respond to attacks on its cyber assets by way of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Finely-calibrated responses to attacks involving traditional kinetic methods has existed and evolved over the centuries. But measuring the appropriate response to a cyber attack is a unique challenge because information operations (IO) use digital weapons, new methods of attack, and novel targets.

Michael N. Schmitt, author of Computer Network Attack and the Use of Force in International Law: Thoughts on a Normative Framework, (1999), offers perhaps the most concrete way of answering the difficult question: “When does the attack rise to the level of a ‘use of force’ under international law?”

The Schmitt analysis applies a quantitative scale (1 to 10) to each of seven factors in order to determine if a cyber attack equates to an armed attack and to characterize any information operation as being closer to one end of a spectrum or the other. These seven factors are:
• Severity
• Immediacy
• Directness
• Invasiveness
• Measurability
• Presumptive Legitimacy
• Responsibility

This amounts to a modern adaptation of Just War Theory. One of the latter’s tenets is “always in response.” Let’s see whether that makes it into practice in the 21st century.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 18, 2008 @ 9:55 am

I would be interested to know if any readers of this blog believe international agreements or treaties are applicable to the question of cyber security and attacks on critical systems? In drafting sessions at the National Security Council in 1998 of the document that became PD-63 I suggested that the statutory definition of “Sabatoge” in Title 18 should be reviewed by the Executive Branch and Congress and perhaps modified to address these questions. The drafting group had no time for legislative analysis and subject dropped. Perhaps this suggestion should be adopted. If my memory is correct the current definition of Sabotage dates from WWI!

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