Tue, Nov 21, 2017 - Page 9 News List

The Pandora’s box of the digital age

Few other trends pose a bigger threat to global stability than governments’ creation of cyberweapons

By Carl Bildt

The problem is that, while deterrence works in the nuclear world, it is not particularly effective in the cyberworld. Rogue actors — and North Korea is hardly the only example — are far less vulnerable than developed countries to cybercounterstrikes. They can attack again and again without risking serious consequences.

Cyberattacks’ often ambiguous origins make it even harder to apply a rational theory of deterrence to the cyberworld. Identifying the responsible party, if possible at all, takes time; and the risk of misattribution is always there. I doubt we will ever see unambiguous proof that Israel is conducting offensive cyberoperations; but that certainly doesn’t mean that it is not.

In the darkness of cyberspace, sophisticated actors can hide behind oblivious third parties, who are then exposed to counterstrikes by the party under attack. And in the ongoing conflict among Gulf countries, at least one government may have contracted hackers based in other countries to conduct operations against an adversary. This method of avoiding detection will almost certainly become the norm.

In a world riven by geopolitical rivalries large and small, such ambiguity and saber-rattling in the cyberrealm could have catastrophic results. Nuclear weapons are generally subject to clear, strict, and elaborate systems of command and control, but who can control the legions of cyberwarriors on the dark web?

Given that we are still in the early stages of the digital age, it is anyone’s guess what will come next. Governments may start developing autonomous counterstrike systems that, even if they fall short of Dr Strangelove’s Doomsday Machine, will usher in a world vulnerable to myriad unintended consequences.

Most obviously, cyberweapons will become a staple in outright wars. The UN Charter affirms all member states’ right to self-defense — a right that is, admittedly, increasingly open to interpretation in a kinetic, digitized world. The charter also touches on questions of international law, particularly with respect to non-combatants and civilian infrastructure in conflict zones.

But what about the countless conflicts that do not reach the threshold of all-out war? So far, efforts to establish universal rules and norms governing state behavior in cyberspace have failed. It is clear that some countries want to preserve their complete freedom of action in this domain.

However, that poses an obvious danger. As the NSA leaks have shown, there is no way to restrict access to destructive cyberweapons, and there is no reason to hope that the rules of restraint that governed the nuclear age will work in the cyberage.

Unfortunately, a binding international agreement to restrict the development and use of offensive cyberweapons in non-war situations is probably a long way off. In the meantime, we need to call greater attention to the dangers of cyberweapon proliferation, and urge governments to develop defensive rather than offensive capabilities. An arms race in cyberspace has no winners.

Carl Bildt was Sweden’s prime minister from 1991 to 1994 and its foreign minister from 2006 to October 2014. He is chair of the Global Commission on Internet Governance and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Europe.

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