Can real-world rules be applied to cyber response?

Policies for responding to cyber attacks are still emerging, but some say that accepted norms regarding physical attacks offer a good guide.

When it comes to defining responses to attacks in the cyber domain, the Defense Department’s policies are still in flux. But officials appear to be shaping the cyber domain in the same scope as the physical, kinetic world. “We’re still working our way through this,” Adm. Mike Rogers, head of both the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, said at the Aspen Security Summit last week. 

“The fundamental principle to me is we’ve built a good framework in the kinetic work – it’s a good departure point for us,” Rogers said. “So I look for the same kind of broad trends – proportion of response, appropriateness of response, the specificity and discreetness, so to speak, of the response – the same things that have conditioned my life in the kinetic world as a serving military officer… that’s the kind of point of departure for me intellectually in the cyber world.”

Harvey Rishikof, chair of the Advisory Committee for the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Law and National Security, said at a panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council this week that the focus now is on the scope and scale of a cyber incident as it applies to the law of armed conflict in terms of projection of force versus projection of harm. 

“So we know that the argument would be if [an adversary] took down our energy infrastructure we would see that probably as a very hostile act and we would respond, we believe, proportionally and with the appropriate discrimination,” Rishikof said. “The issue of the cyber is it’s hard to discriminate ‘cause these systems are tied so quickly into their actual infrastructures.”

He offered the example of the Red Cross being off limits in a kinetic conflict and suggested that similar norms, distinguishing between military and civilian installations, be developed for the cyber domain. The problem, however, is that the technical, connected nature of the online world makes it more difficult to determine the “red lines” that are more clear-cut in the physical world. For example, Rishikof questioned, rhetorically to some degree, what the appropriate response would be against attacks such as the North Korea hack on Sony Pictures; bombing, using force or a cyber response.

As several DOD officials have said already, a cyber incident does not necessarily have to warrant a cyber response—the Obama administration’s response to the Sony hack, for example, was to impose economic sanctions on North Korea. 

Rogers also took up that theme in Aspen. “If I’m on a ship, and I’m off an enemy coast line and the enemy fires a missile at me, I have the inherent right of self-defense – I can shoot down that missile.  I then do not have the authority to use every weapon system on my ship and decide ‘I’m taking out every cruise missile site in that nation.’ That’s not the framework we’ve created,” Rogers said, noting that DOD is trying to adopt a similar model in the cyber domain. “There is no one-size-fits-all” approach in the cyber domain, he said.

But some are challenging the comparisons to the kinetic world. “I think we’re actually fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of warfare in this [cyber] domain.  We’re so focused from a U.S. government perspective on kinetic effects – how do we get something to blow up because that’s what we’re used to,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and CTO of CrowdStrike and non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, sarcastically adding the old military analogy that to a hammer every problem is a nail. 

“If you look at how China and Russia in particular look at this problem, they look at it as information operations,” Alperovitch said. “ It’s no wonder that when we see statements from the Russian government they say that they’re facing numerous cyber attacks … saying someone is going to my information sphere and they’re putting something on that can destabilize my regime. The Chinese, same thing. And you look at some of their actions both in cyberspace and elsewhere, they’re all focused on information operations, psychological warfare.” 

An example Alperovitch gave was the incident involving a leaked phone conversation between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine in February. Nuland is heard uttering a dismissive expletive in disapproval of the European Union and its early handling of the Ukraine crisis.

“Would we [the U.S.] ever in a million years if we had the same success where we were able to intercept Putin talking trash about [Chinese] President Xi – would we ever, ever release it publically? No!” Alperovitch said. “We would lock it up under five locks and pat ourselves on the back for the incredible ‘get’ that we accomplished here but we would never even think about using it in a way that could actually jeopardize standing,” with other nations. Russia, by contrast, posted Nuland’s leaked conversation on YouTube. Alperovitch said the United States must rethink how it uses specific tools such as information as opposed to just kinetic approaches. 

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