Cyberwar Is not a Game; It’s War

The evidently casual attitude of Washington decision-makers notwithstanding, drone attacks and cyberwar are not games, despite using joy sticks and software; they are war.

The regimes that engage in cyberwar need to think about the implications, the blowback potential of establishing this new practice. After all, cyberwar is…war. Those attacked have the right to respond. Does cyberwar justify a conventional response? Does cyberwar supported by another state justify an attack on that state? How do we rank the seriousness of cyberwar in comparison to drone attacks, terrorist attacks, conventional attacks, nuclear attacks, biological attacks? And finally, why is Washington taking actions (either directly or by backing Israel) that will only provoke its antagonists to respond with the very same cyber techniques…which greatly favor the US’s weaker and less technically developed adversaries? Given the enormous amount of infrastructure in the US linked to the Internet, is diplomacy by cyberwar a contest we can win?

After WWII, the US introduced the hydrogen bomb, gaining no advantage as the USSR quickly responded. In the 1970s, the US introduced MIRVed nuclear missiles, to which the USSR quickly responded, leaving the world less stable since MIRVs enhanced the advantage of a first strike. Over the last decade, the US has established the precedent of attack inside other countries with drones even without a declaration of war, and it is already clear that US adversaries are moving to counter this momentary US advantage. It is also likely that the blowback of increasingly cheap and plentiful drones will provide a dangerous advantage to small, weak adversaries. Bush and Obama will share responsibility with the perpetrators for the first drone terror strike on the US mainland by a non-state actor. And now Washington is laying the groundwork for further blowback by creating the new international precedent of cyberwar even though the US may be the most vulnerable country in the world to such attacks because of its combination of open society and highly developed Internet-linked infrastructure.

A further danger of cyberwar may be even more serious. The use of cyberwar to attack countries with which we are not formally at war blurs the line between war and peace. Blurring that line not only undermines democracy by undermining Congressional control over White House actions but raises the danger of provoking a full-scale war. Just because Washington sees cyberwar as a low-cost way to harm an opponent does not mean the opponent will necessarily also have the same casual attitude toward software manipulations that could provoke industrial, even nuclear, accidents with very real consequences.

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