Pentagon Says Cyberattacks Constitute 'Act of War'

News comes this week that the Pentagon has designated cyberattacks acts of war. Far from being a bureaucratic moniker, the designation allows the United States to respond to these “hack attacks” with force under international law.

And administration officials are not shy about connecting the dots to draw a picture of what could happen to a state that perpetrates such an attack on the United States. “A response to a cyber-incident or attack on the U.S. would not necessarily be a cyber-response. All appropriate options would be on the table," said Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan.

Though administration officials said they have deliberately left the policy ambiguous, it seems that force-driven responses would come only with severe attacks that focus on domestic assets such as infrastructure. “If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks," a Defense Department official told the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story.

Such a policy would certainly act as a deterrent for these attacks. If a government knew there was a chance that its country would be bombed as a result of virtual attacks, it would likely try to figure out other means of getting what it wanted.

Furthermore, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to trace where these attacks are coming from. When considering military action, a government must have full confidence that it knows whom its enemy is before it presses the red button to launch that missile into someone’s smokestack.

But what if the attacker doesn’t have a smokestack? Because the resources necessary for conducting an attack are easy to procure, cyberwarfare is often asymmetrical, meaning the attacker is not a government, but an individual or group. While China doesn’t employ a coordinated hacking strategy, it does reward its citizen-hackers whenever they cause a major breach. Whom would the U.S. government target if one of these citizen-hackers were to crack part of the U.S. power grid?

I suspect that the Defense Department has thought of all these scenarios, and simply doesn’t want the whole world to know because it would spoil the deterrent effect. What do you think?

Posted by Laura Williams on Jun 02, 2011

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