Wednesday, June 6, 2012

cyber war and world peace

At first, I nodded in agreement with Robert Wright's complaint that the Obama Administration was guilty of hypocrisy in practicing cyber attacks on Iran at the same time it was declaring cyber war immoral. On reflection, I think we need to make several distinctions that minimize the hypocrisy.

Cyber attacks belong somewhere in the middle of the escalation ladder between nasty word and nuclear weapons. They are more morally acceptable than explosives that injure or kill innocent civilians, but they can have harmful consequences to people and their livelihoods. Even within the cyber realm, espionage is more tolerable and widely practiced than attacks that destroy infrastructure.  In the case of Iran's nuclear activities, I think most people would agree that messing with their machines is less objectionable than murdering scientists.

I think there's a useful comparison here to anti-satellite weapons. U.S. military capabilities have long been  highly dependent on satellites for communications and intelligence, just as they are now dependent on secure computer connections. The United States has toyed with various anti-satellite approaches, many of which would only add to space debris and thus potential collateral damage to our own systems. The U.S., Russia, and China have each had symbolic tests of ASAT systems, but seem to have stopped short of full-scale development. Meanwhile, there are discussions under way for arms control measures.

Treaties won't prevent hostile actions, but they may set international norms and constrain their use. Even if the US has more to lose than others at the moment, all space-faring nations have an interest in avoiding the development and use of ASAT weapons.

I think that's where we are on cyber warfare, too. Some hostile actions are inevitable and better than the kinetic alternatives. But there might be international agreement on some red lines and distinctions that would make us all better off.

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