Provoking Cyber-war Is Asking for Trouble

Washington’s fascination with so-called risk-free weapons of war–computer viruses or drones–that do not instantly get U.S. soldiers killed is endangering the long-term security of the U.S. for highly debatable short-term gain, stimulating U.S. adversaries to develop and use in “peacetime” weapons that over the long run will give weak enemies significant advantages over the U.S. Washington leaders are trading strategic security for tactical advantage.

A popular idea in Washington today holds that Americans have a technological advantage in the computer field, so cyber-warfare is a good deal for the U.S. since it will always be a technical step ahead. Think again, Washington. Cyber-war is a trap for the U.S. Washington’s use of cyber-warfare against its opponents sets a precedent that will end up undermining U.S. national security, which would be better served by efforts to establish cyber-attacks as clear violations of international law.

First, it is neither clear that the U.S. always has or can retain a meaningful lead in this ultimate international field. Take a look at any computer company in the U.S. – people from all over the globe are filling the ranks of “American” computer operations. Maybe…maybe…most computer ideas get tested first in the U.S., but the chances are that they are tested by foreign nationals or almost immediately shared with foreign nationals. Computer information leaks fast. This is especially true of cyber-war techniques: the minute they are used, they become known. It is hard to imagine anything more closely guarded than the Israeli (or perhaps U.S.) cyber-warfare attack on Iran called Stuxnet, but the minute it was launched  techies worldwide began analyzing it. The fact that the code apparently leaked to harm by contagion innocent corporations in third countries (“collateral cyber-damage”) made the secret all the more available to the world.

Second, it is precisely the advanced degree of computerization in the U.S. that makes the U.S. particularly vulnerable to cyber-warfare. The U.S. has too many corporations, power generating facilities, banks, and individuals deeply dependent on the Internet to enable us to protect ourselves from cyber-warfare. In the end, Americans will get hurt more.

In fact, the cyber world is the great equalizer, where one smart techie can aspire to match wits with the world at virtually no cost to himself and at virtually no risk to himself. And reality is worse – when it comes to China, Iran, or any other country that might feel itself to be a target of U.S. or Israeli cyber-warfare, U.S. or Israeli adversaries will not be individual techies operating out of their basement; far from it.

If Israel is acting alone to attack Iran with computer viruses, then Washington should force it to stop: the U.S. will inevitably be blamed and U.S. national security thus harmed. Cyber-warfare that endangers the safety of nuclear installations is no game. An Israeli provocation that predictably will provoke a response attack against the U.S. is effectively an Israeli attack on the U.S.

All this is not just a warning about the future. As the New York Times revealed on October 14, U.S./Israeli cyber-chickens have already started coming home to roost. In response to the cyber-attack on Iran, Iran of course reacted, and the Times reports U.S. officials describing “an emerging shadow war of attacks and counterattacks.”

While supporters of the violence-prone Netanyahu clique may find this situation satisfying, a “shadow-war” with Iran using such new, unregulated weapons systems as computer viruses and drones pushes the world toward more warfare, more blurring of the lines between war and peace, a more barbaric and dangerous future in which international law becomes further undermined and the law of the jungle once again becomes the norm of world affairs. That world would benefit an obvious assortment of marginalized dissident groups and leaders looking for chaos they can exploit; it would constitute an extreme threat to the American way of life, to American democracy, and to U.S. national security. A world based on brute force implemented with low-cost weapons that any minor group can employ secretly is not a world most Americans will find enjoyable.

Instead of blurring the distinction between peace and war for short-term advantage, Washington should promote the strengthening of international law and use its drone and cyber-war capabilities as bargaining chips to strengthen a call for negotiated settlements leading to long-term solutions rather than throwing away short-term advantages in the self-defeating belief that violence is the road to creating an international political system in which the American way of life will flourish. Of course, to do that, Washington will actually have to offer something of interest to its adversaries and make calculations that go beyond the next election.


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