Tag Archives: cyber attacks

Cyberwarfare and International Relations

Iranian President Ahmadinejad visits a uranium enrichment plant near Natanz where the Stuxnet virus infected computers and damaged centrifuges.

Are advances in “cyberwarfare” moving faster than states’ ability to manage them?  Two New York Times articles this week raise some interesting–and at times disturbing–questions about the implications of cyberwarfare for national security and international relations.  The United States and Israel have used cyberattacks over the past few years in an effort to cripple Iran’s nuclear program, but the long term consequences of relying on such tools are unclear.  In an article entitled “Mutually Assured Cyberdestruction?” New York Times columnist David Sanger raises the following questions:

“Does the United States want to legitimize the use of cyberweapons as a covert tool? Or is it something we want to hold in reserve for extreme cases? Will we reach the point — as we did with chemical weapons, and the rest of the world did with land mines — that we want treaties to ban their use? Or is that exactly the wrong analogy, in a world in which young hackers, maybe working on their own or maybe hired by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army or the Russian mob, can launch attacks themselves?”  As Sanger notes, treaties–a key source of international law–have been used to codify opposition to chemical weapons and land mines.  More broadly, international norms (generally unwritten expectations about appropriate behavior) have arisen that prohibit the use of weapons of mass destruction–chemical, biological, and nuclear.  Could treaties and norms also be used to manage the spread and utilization of cyberweapons?

Sanger compares the cyberwarfare “learning period” in which we find ourselves to the early years of the Cold War, when the world was grappling with the dangers and utility of nuclear weapons: “It took years after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima for the nation to develop a common national understanding of when and how to use a weapon of such magnitude. Not until after the Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 years ago this October, did a consensus emerge that the weapon was too terrible ever to employ again, save as a deterrent and a weapon of last resort.”  This may seem like hyperbole, but Sanger quotes Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as warning that the “next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyberattack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems.”  A second recent NY Times article, entitled “Expert Issues a Cyberwar Warning,” notes that military contractors, including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, are already developing devastating computer viruses for different U.S. intelligence agencies.  Are we approaching the point where we need to begin thinking of deterrence in the cyber domain, as we have in the nuclear arena?

What do you think?  Given their destructive potential, should cyberweapons be categorized alongside nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as weapons of mass destruction?   Should their use be banned by international treaty?  Or are cyberweapons a way to accomplish important missions without the bloodshed and “collateral damage” of conventional weaponry?

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Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Economic data out this week suggests that the end of the global recession may be nearing. The most recent jobless numbers out of the United States gave economists reason to celebrate, as the unemployment rate declined by 1/10 of a point, leading to a price rally on Wall Street. Germany, which has seen a sharp decline in gross domestic product (glossary) during the global recession, benefitted from an unexpected expansion of exports—7 percent in June. While other countries continue to struggle, including Russia and Iceland, many economists now believe we are seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

In other news from the previous week:

1. The trial of dozens of people, including a French national and two Iranians employed in the British and French embassies began in Iran on Saturday. The defendants are charged with espionage and “acting against national security” by taking part in and reporting on post-election protests to Western embassies. Under Iranian law, a conviction on either charge could be punished by death. Several of the defendants have confessed, but Western governments have dismissed the charges as “baseless” and contend the confessions were made under duress. The government of Iran accuses the United States and Britain of interfering in its internal affairs by “proving financial help to Iran’s opposition.” Meanwhile, the trial of 100 opposition leaders continued last week. The opposition leaders have condemned the trials as a spectacle, but the defendants face charges punishable by death. Opposition leaders continue to assert that the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad in June’s disputed presidential election was the result of electoral fraud. Nevertheless, Ahmadi-Nejad was sworn in on Monday.

2. A power struggle inside Taliban in Pakistan emerged over the weekend after the organization’s top leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. drone strike on Friday. Mehsud was a powerful figure in the Waziristan district of Pakistan, and Pakistani officials believe he was responsible for nearly all of the major terrorist attacks in Pakistan over the past two years, including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the bombing of Marriot Hotel in Islamabad in 2008. Many analysts believe that Mehsud’s death will undermine the ability of the Taliban to operate in Pakistan. Already, political infighting in the Taliban in Pakistan’s leadership has led to the murder of one top leader by another, as Waliur Rehman, a leading contender to lead the organization, killed Hakimullah Mehsud, a rival for the same position. Pakistani intelligence now believes the organization is likely to splinter into several factions, each operating independently, but collectively much weaker than the original organization.

3. Former President Bill Clinton met with North Korean President Kim Jong-il this week, securing the release of two American journalists who had been sentenced to twelve years of hard labor for illegally entering the country. The meeting, which the White House maintains was not part of its official diplomatic efforts to address the challenges posed by the North Korean regime, was the highest level contact between the two countries in more than ten years. The Obama administration also reminded North Korea that, despite Clinton’s trip, that the United States will continue its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the North Korean state unless it abandons efforts to secure nuclear weapons.

4. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began her Africa tour this week, meeting with Kenyan officials on Wednesday. Clinton is hoping to apply pressure on the coalition government to move forward with political reforms intended to bring grater stability to the country and to prevent another flare up of the violence which rocked the country after February’s disputed presidential election.

On Thursday, Clinton met with Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the embattled president of Somalia. Clinton used the opportunity to reiterate U.S. support for the Ahmed government, pledging to provide more military and economic assistance as the government continues its battle against Islamist insurgents. Meanwhile, in neighboring Eritrea, President Isaias Afewerki, who is believed to be a supporter of rebel groups in Somalia, dismissed U.S. efforts, saying that it is unrealistic to try and “imposing [a government] that doesn’t exist in reality.” Somalia has long topped Foreign Policy’s list of failed states. The lack of an effective central state has also made the country a haven for pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

5. A series of cyber-attacks aimed at social networking sites last week were believed to be directed at one individual—a blogger posting under the name of Cyxymu Livejournal. The denial-of-service attacks targeted several popular sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the blogging site Livejournal. Cyxymu Livejournal is a critic of Russian policy in the Caucuses, particularly Georgia. According to some sources, the Russian government has used denial-of-service attacks in the past, targeting sites critical of the Russian government in Georgia, Estonia, and Eastern Europe. But if responsible for the most recent round of attacks, this could represent an expansion of the strategy. Leading credence to the theory is the fact that this week marked the one year anniversary of the Russian-Georgian War over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been another busy week for President Barack Obama, who started the week laying the foundation for a new arms control agreement with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, then moved on to discuss a range of issues including food security and climate change at the G8 summit in Italy, before concluding the week with a visit to Ghana, where he delivered a speech calling for more effective and accountable leadership in Africa.

In other news from the previous week:

1. In a surprising move, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced on Friday that Russia was still interested in securing membership in the World Trade Organization. In doing so, President Medvedev reversed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s June announcement that Russia was ending its bid to secure WTO membership, moving forward instead with a customs union incorporating several of the former Soviet republics. While Medvedev’s spokesperson sought to minimize the differences between Medvedev and Putin’s approaches the policy reversal nevertheless represents the most dramatic policy clash between Russia’s two top political leaders. The uncertainty surrounding Russia’s position on WTO membership further complicates ongoing talks between Russia and its trade partners.

2. A series of denial-of-service attacks against the United States and South Korea on Wednesday were likely the result of a North Korean cyber attack. In a denial-of-service attack, thousands of simultaneous electronic information requests are made, causing computer servers to crash. Wednesday’s attacks were directed against South Korean and U.S. financial sector and government computers, including Department of Defense and FBI networks. The attacks followed a series of increasingly aggressive missile test launches by North Korea, including several launched over the July 4th weekend, and highlighted the vulnerability of U.S. computer networks to relatively simple cyber attacks. Many analysts believe this sort of denial-of-service attack—in an effort to inhibit communications—would precede a North Korean military attacks against the South.

3. Israel’s National Security Advisor, Uzi Arad, considered by many to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closed political advisor, announced that Israel would not return the Golan Heights to Syria as part of any peace deal. The two countries are currently engaged in indirect talks aimed at reaching a “comprehensive peace.” But the status of the Golan Heights remains disputed, as both countries seek control of the region, which is of strategic importance, as well as being a major source of water and a popular tourist destination in the water-scarce region. Israel seized the Golan Heights in 1967, after the Syrian army used the strategic position to shell Israeli positions in the Hula Valley below. The status of the Golan Heights, along with the status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, remains the major stumbling blocks for a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors.

4. Talks intended to resolve the political crisis in Honduras began in Costa Rica on Thursday. The crisis began two weeks ago, when President Manuel Zelaya was removed from office and put on a military transport out of the country. Roberto Micheletti has been named interim president, but his government is not recognized by the international community. The Organization of American States has taken the lead on addressing the standoff, sponsoring talks to peacefully resolve the standoff. But so far, both sides are unwilling to compromise on the central question: who should rule in Honduras?

5. The United States and the European Union appear to be on a collision course with respect to new financial regulations intended to prevent another global financial crisis like the one that ripped through markets late last year. The U.S. Congress is currently considering a new regulatory system that would impose stricter regulation on derivatives, including bans on some of the riskiest financial instruments. But many are concerned that stricter regulations in the United States would encourage regulatory arbitrage, where financial companies would simply relocate to jurisdictions with weaker regulatory systems.