Today's Article
'U.S. armed forces are
actively preparing to
engage in cyber
attacks...and may
have done so in the
past,' states an
eye-opening report
released last year.
The American Spark
Cyber Attacks Now Part Of U.S. War Policy

By Cliff Montgomery - Apr. 4th, 2010

"The current policy and legal framework regulating use of cyber-attack by the United States  is ill-formed,
undeveloped, and highly uncertain," according to a press release discussing a
National Research Council
report issued last year. (Look for the 'PDF Summary' in the 'Download Free' section of the webpage.)

The National Research Council (NRC) is "part of a private, non-profit institution that provides science,
technology and health policy advice under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln" in
1863, declares the NRC's mission statement.

Though the Council's findings are nearly a year old, they remain important today. The introduction to the NRC
report summary plainly states why this is so:

"Although there is a substantial literature on the potential impact of a cyber-attack on the societal infrastructure
of the United States, little has been written about the use of cyber-attack as an instrument of U.S. policy."

At least until the creation of this study.

The American Spark quotes major portions of the report summary:

"Cyber-attack refers to deliberate actions to alter, disrupt, deceive, degrade, or destroy computer systems or
networks or the information and/or programs resident in or transiting these systems or networks."

"The United States is increasingly dependent on information and information technology for both civilian and
military purposes, as are many other nations. Although there is a substantial literature on the potential impact
of a cyber-attack on the societal infrastructure of the United States, little has been written about the use of
cyber-attack as an instrument of U.S. policy."

"The U.S. armed forces are actively preparing to engage in cyber-attacks, perhaps in concert with other
information warfare means and/or with kinetic attacks, and may have done so in the past.

"Domestic law enforcement agencies also engage in cyber-attack when they jam cell phone networks in order
to prevent the detonation of improvised explosive devices.

"Such matters pose some very important issues that relate to technology, policy, law, and ethics. This report
provides an intellectual framework for thinking about cyber-attack and understanding these issues.

"A first point is that cyber-attack must be clearly distinguished from cyber-exploitation, which is an intelligence-
gathering activity rather than a destructive activity. Although much of the technology underlying cyber-
exploitation is similar to that of cyber-attack, cyber-attack and cyber-exploitation are conducted for entirely
different purposes. (This contrast is relevant to much of the public debate using the term 'cyber-attack', which
in common usage often lumps both attack and exploitation under the 'attack' label.)

"Second, weapons for cyber-attack have a number of characteristics that differentiate them from traditional
kinetic weapons. Compared to kinetic weapons, many weapons for cyber-attack:

    • Are easy to use with high degrees of anonymity and with plausible deniability, making them well suited
    for covert operations and for instigating conflict between other parties;

    • Are more uncertain in the outcomes they produce, making it difficult to estimate deliberate and
    collateral damage; and

    • Involve a much larger range of options and possible outcomes, and may operate on time scales
    ranging from tenths of a second to years, and at spatial scales anywhere from 'concentrated in a facility
    next door' to globally dispersed.

"Third, cyber-attack as a mode of conflict raises many operational issues.

"For example, given that any large nation experiences cyber-attacks continuously, how will the United States
know it is the subject of a cyber-attack deliberately launched by an adversary government?

"There is also a further tension between a policy need for rapid response and the technical reality that
attribution is a time-consuming task.

"Shortening the time for investigation may well increase the likelihood of errors being made in a response (e.g.,
responding against the wrong machine or launching a response that has large unintended effects).

Illustrative Applications of Cyber-attack

"Cyber-attack can support military operations. For example, a cyber-attack could disrupt adversary command,
control, and communications; suppress air defenses; degrade smart munitions and platforms; or attack war-
fighting or war-making infrastructure (the defense industrial base).

"Cyber-attack might be used to augment or to enable some other kinetic attack to succeed, or to defend a
friendly computer system or network by neutralizing the source of a cyber-attack conducted against it.

"Cyber-attack can also support covert action, which is designed to influence governments, events,
organizations, or persons in support of foreign policy in a manner that is not necessarily attributable to the U.S.

"The range of possible cyber-attack options is very large, and so cyber-attack-based covert action might be
used, for example, to influence an election, instigate conflict between political factions, harass disfavored
leaders or entities, or divert money.

Illustrative Applications of Cyber-exploitation

"For intelligence gathering, cyber-exploitation of an adversary’s computer systems might yield valuable
information. For example, U.S. intelligence agencies might learn useful information about an adversary’s
intentions and capabilities from a penetration of its classified government networks. Alternatively, they might
obtain useful economic information from penetrating the computer systems of a competing nation’s major
industrial firms."

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