Beware of Cyber China: How Should We Define an ‘Act of War’ in the Virtual World of the Internet?
Cyberspace is awash in vulnerabilities. Actors in the cyber domain are wise to protect against crime, espionage, and hacktivist intrusions. But while those vulnerabilities are all too real, they are not driving the policy debate today in Washington. Instead, what seems to have seized the imagination of so many is the prospect of a true cyberwar.
But we’ve never had a real cyberwar (though the Russian attack on Georgia comes close), so there is no solid data on the threats that exist. We can only assess the potential for cyberwar by measuring the capabilities or our possible adversaries, and then only by educated guess work. We have no clear sense of true intent. As a result we lack a solid quantifiable risk assessment of the cyber threat to national security and this leaves policy makers only with speculation as to the extent of our risk from a cyber attack by a willful cyber opponent.
The uncertainty does not, however, prevent us from thinking about the problem. We struggle today with two inter-related questions: Who are we likely to fight? And how are we going to fight them?
American military strategists see China as the most likely peer opponent in cyberspace. As the Department of Defense’s (DoD) 2010 report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, concluded:
numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. government, continued to be the target of intrusions that appear to have originated within the [People’s Republic of China]. These intrusions focused on exfiltratring information, some of which could be of strategic or of military utility. The accesses and skills required for these intrusions are similar to those necessary to conduct computer network attacks. It remains unclear if these intrusions were conducted by, or with the endorsement of, the [People’s Liberation Army] or other elements of the [People’s Republic of China] government. However, developing capabilities for cyberwarfare is consistent with authoritative [People’s Liberation Army] military writings.
Likewise, China sees the United States as its principal cyber-competitor. A recent report in the Chinese-language, Liberation Army Daily (an unofficial but well-vetted source) put it this way…