Cyberwar, Real and Imagined (World Politics Review Features)

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Later that year, America and Israel used a sophisticated malware— Stuxnet— to shut down a nuclear reactor in Natanz, Iran. Meanwhile, American intelligence agencies have reported scores of attempted cyber attacks on critical infrastructure in the USA—including air traffic control systems, satellite systems, and national electricity grids. At least 29 governments now have military or intelligence units specifically dedicated to offensive cyber operations, and more than 60 countries are developing cyber-weapons according to a survey by the Wall Street Journal Paletta et al.

We are witnessing the rapid unfolding of an international cyber-arms race. Just as the development of nuclear weapons revolutionized strategic thinking after World War II and sparked decades of nuclear arms racing that was only gradually brought under control through intense international diplomacy and formal arms control agreements, new cyber technologies have today sparked a frenzied contest to develop cyber offensive weapons and devise new strategies to defend against them see Sanger et al.

History suggests that arms races are best controlled through formal multilateral agreements, carefully crafted to reduce fears and tensions, increase transparency, and facilitate reciprocal arms reductions. From the invention of the expanding bullet and automated guns to the evolution of modern chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, the introduction of new military technologies has generally led to efforts some more successful than others by the international community to control and limit their use.

But, is strengthening cyber offensive capabilities with the aim to deter and if necessary to wage cyberwar really the best defense against cyberattack? In this article, I discuss the limitations of offense-based cyber deterrence and seek to build a case for an international convention limiting the development and use of cyber weapons. In doing so, I seek to rebut some of the main objections to a legally binding international treaty governing cyber warfare. I submit that while the distinctive features of cyberspace present significant obstacles to achieving effective arms control in this realm, none of these obstacles are insurmountable.

I further contend that whereas most current political and military planners believe cyberspace favors offensive strategies , a closer examination of the political and material realities of cyberspace in fact suggest the dominance of defensive strategies. This in turn improves prospects for negotiating an effective multilateral agreement to decelerate the cyber arms race and thereby reduce risks of serious cyber conflict between states.

Let me be clear at the outset about what I am not arguing: I do not advocate that political and military leaders abandon current objectives of bolstering cyber deterrence in favor of a singular reliance on international diplomacy to manage cyber rivalry. However, I argue, creating an international legal framework to govern cyber warfare would abet efforts to achieve stable cyber deterrence.

Indeed, many of the problems that currently undermine effective cyber deterrence including difficulties of attribution, difficulties in distinguishing hostile attacks from innocent mistakes, lack of clarity about what constitutes an attack under international law, and—closely related to this—lacking credibility of retaliatory threats would be greatly alleviated by the articulation of clear, binding international rules and norms that would both serve to distinguish lawful from unlawful behavior and facilitate punishment of cyber aggressors.

The discussion is organized as follows. Section 1 introduces the basic concepts relevant to my analysis. Section 2 documents the current rush by states to amass cyber offensive capabilities in order to bolster deterrence and analyzes the dangers associated with rapid build-ups of offensive capabilities. This section begins by highlighting the limitations of offensive-based deterrence. To be successful, an international treaty aimed at reducing risks of cyber warfare must fulfill at least four criteria: 1 it must offer sufficient positive incentives to ensure broad participation by states, 2 it must stipulate rules that effectively constrain behavior and that can be practically implemented given current technology, 3 it must provide sufficient credible information to reduce uncertainty about state interests and enable effective signaling, and 4 it must ensure significant costs to non-compliance.

Section 5 concludes by pointing to the demand for strong international leadership in cyberspace by the most capable cyber-actors—in particular, the USA. Before proceeding, it is therefore necessary to briefly define the key concepts of analysis. This environment is used every day by hundreds of millions of people to communicate, search for information, and conduct ordinary business transactions. Second, cyberspace itself is increasingly viewed by states as a military asset. Contemporary weapons systems are often highly dependent on ICT infrastructure, and cyberspace therefore becomes a hotly contested military domain.

One of the main contentions of this article is that the ongoing weaponization of cyberspace significantly heightens risks of international conflict, possibly rising to the level of cyber warfare. What precisely is meant by this term?

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This is too broad. As Joseph Nye a , b observes, cyberspace harbors a wide range of threats to states and individuals—ranging from identity theft and cyber espionage to various forms of electronic crime and low-grade sabotage through denial-of-service attacks or defacement of internet sites. This definition rests on three criteria concerning the origin, means, and effects of hostile acts in cyberspace.

The first criterion specifies that cyber warfare refers to hostile acts perpetrated by and directed at states. Some will take issue with this narrow focus on interstate conflict, objecting that many current cyber threats stem from non-state actors. This is true. But while many non-state actors are increasingly cyber-savvy, these actors generally lack the capacity to launch sophisticated cyberattacks against critical infrastructure on their own.


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Furthermore, combatting cyber threats from non-state actors presents a different set of challenges for architects of international cooperation than governing interstate conflict. The second criterion specifies that cyber warfare refers to acts of war perpetrated by using cyber weapons. Cyber weapons, in turn, are defined as weapons built primarily of software and data, which are intended to cause targeted harm or widespread destruction in or through the cyber domain see Clarke and Knake ; Lucas , 7.

The third criterion stipulates that to qualify as cyber warfare, a cyberattack must be intended to cause serious harm.


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It is less straightforward, however, to determine what range of cyber intrusions fall clearly within our definition. As Lucas , 20 notes, Struxnet is unique in offering the first example of a virtual weapon causing direct physical damage against a high-value strategic target in the real world, and its use is thus relatively easy to classify as an act of cyberwarfare. Virtual attacks against high-profile political targets such as government agencies or military command structures may have equally damaging effects if they succeed in disabling critical infrastructure or undermine trust in a political system.

Yet, it is precisely this question among others on which international agreement is needed if escalation of cyber conflict is to be avoided. Drawing that line in international law will undoubtedly be very hard and require long and arduous negotiations with input from legal and technical experts. For now, I will simply observe that drawing some kind of clear line that states can orient themselves by is likely to be more important than where precisely the line is drawn. International security scholars and military officials widely agree that cyberspace favors offensive operations see Nye a , b ; Lonergan ; Sheldon ; Libicki , 32—33; Clarke and Knake ; Vanca ; Saltzman , 43; Lindsay , 52; Lucas , Second, the prospect of launching attacks with relative anonymity and therefore impunity lowers the expected cost of offensive strategies in cyberspace see Sheldon , 98; Lindsay Third, physical distance is relatively inconsequential in the virtual world.

Cyberattacks can emerge practically from anywhere, providing significant latitude for attackers to seize the initiative and catch defenders by surprise Nye ; Sheldon , Another way of stating this point is that cyber technologies lead to great improvements in the mobility and reach of force—both factors held to increase offensive advantage see Glaser and Kaufman , The International relations IR theory points to four main strategic implications of offensive dominance.

In a cyber context, the compulsion to act and react fast is further amplified by the changing vulnerability of most cyber targets.

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Cyber weapons consist of complex software designed to exploit vulnerabilities residing in other software, such as computer operations systems or industrial control systems Lucas , 7. Unlike most conventional targets, a given cyber target may therefore only be vulnerable—and a cyber weapon aimed at that target only potentially effective—until the point at which a string of code is fixed or the target is replaced DOD , 3. See also Buchanan ; Lonergan ; Lindsay , A second implication of offensive advantage is to encourage arms racing.

As Glaser and Kaufman , 48 explain, when offense is strong, states are likely to find that equally sized forces are inadequate to support a defensive strategy. Instead, they are likely to conclude that they require a substantial lead in military force to defend against attacks.

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This triggers a dynamic of competitive arms building, whereby even states that merely wish to defend the status quo strive to build up their military arsenals at a faster pace than their competitors in order to secure an adequate defense. A third effect of offensive advantage is to increase rewards for striking first, thereby increasing the probability of preemptive or preventive attacks Jervis ; van Evera In the cyber domain, incentives to attack enemies preemptively arise partly from the fact that actions in cyberspace move so fast that they leave little time for targeted states to mount a defense Clarke and Knake Indeed, many military strategists believe that preemptive strikes in the cyber domain are likely to bring decisive advantages on the conventional battlefield see, e.

Fourth, according to IR theory, when offense is strong relative to defense, the ability to deter attacks as opposed to seeking to defend against them becomes vital. Logically, in a strategic environment that is thought to favor offensive operations, the ability to deter aggressors hinges crucially on the ability to signal or demonstrate superior offensive capabilities.

Cyberspace affords commanders opportunities to make decisions rapidly, conduct operations, and deliver effects at speeds that were previously incomprehensible. In addition, increasing the speed of the policy and decision-making process potentially will yield greater effectiveness of cyberspace capabilities. US DOD , 4. The Trump Administration has also signaled an aggressive cyber position.

Other nations appear to be drawing similar conclusions regarding the need to adopt more offensive cyber postures. Russia, Iran, and North Korea all have military units specifically dedicated to offensive cyber operations NY Times Even Denmark and the Netherlands have launched programs to develop cyber offensive capabilities Paletta, Yadron and Valentino-Devries And, much like political and military planners prior to WWI, they tend to discount the power of political factors including the rule of international law which may favor defenders.

Lessons of history suggest this is a dangerous approach. A large literature in IR has found that offensive dominance increases volatility in international relations. As already discussed, one source of volatility is perceived first-mover advantages arising from offensive advantage, which imply that even states that wish to defend the status quo may be overcome by pressures to launch preemptive strikes van Evera ; Glaser and Kaufman However, an equally serious danger arising from offensive advantage is that it heightens the risk of simple misunderstandings leading to inadvertent crisis escalation.

Pressure to act fast in the cyber domain means that strategic and tactical decisions for example, about how to respond to a suspected cyber intrusion or to a threat of intrusion will often have to be made before actors are in possession of all the facts.

Again, this danger is not merely theoretical. Effectively, ACD involves setting up systems to detect and automatically strike against attacking computer systems with the aim of shutting down cyberattacks midstream before the precise origin or nature of an attack are necessarily known see Carr , 46, 73; Maurer and Morgus By striking against intruders indiscriminately, ACD widens the scope for mistakes. After all, an apparent cyberattack could be a simple accident.

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Thus, by automating retaliatory response, a targeted state runs the risk of accidentally targeting innocent systems and thereby escalating conflict Libicki , 28; Lindsay , 57— What is more, ACD limits opportunities for reducing escalation by issuing clear warnings or by responding to intrusions with small but incrementally increasing countermeasures to persuade a challenger to back down, thereby limiting opportunities for active crisis management.

A third danger associated with offensive advantage is that it encourages bellicose diplomacy. According to Stephen van Evera , the Cult prior to WWI pushed states to adopt a highly aggressive style of diplomacy, reliant on issuing ultimatums and threats rather than focusing on negotiation.

At the same time, perceived offensive advantage also prompts states to be more secretive about their military capabilities and plans Glaser and Kaufman A similar tendency to shroud military plans in secrecy is visible in cyberspace, where concealment, stealth, and surprise are widely seen as integral to cyber security after all, many cyber weapons and tactics would immediately lose their purpose if enemies knew of their concrete nature. To sum up, the Cult of the Cyber Offensive creates a volatile strategic environment with significant risks of rapid crisis escalation.