Do we need a U.N. cybersecurity council?

An independent research group calls for an international body to deal with cyber threats, conflicts

The international community urgently needs an organization to provide risk advisories on cyber threats and an international force to respond to cyberattacks against governments, according to a new study by the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit (US-CCU), an independent, nonprofit research institute.

US-CCU studied the cyberattacks that plagued Georgia’s communications infrastructure during the country’s brief war with Russia in August 2008. The group concluded that in many ways, the cyber incidents during that war represent a pattern that’s likely to be part of future conflicts.

"The weapons of war in the past were things such as tanks, ships and airplanes,” said John Bumgarner, the principal author of the study and US-CCU’s research director for security technology. “To wage war today, all you really need is intellect and a computer."

He said there should be more international discussions about cyberattacks, cyber conflicts and cyber warfare. “We need to establish some type of organization that can help foster" this necessary international relationship, Bumgarner said.

Bumgarner’s research showed that last year’s cyberattacks on Georgia were carried out by civilians with little or no direct involvement from the Russian government, which has denied involvement.

However, US-CCU’s analysis also showed that the first wave of cyberattacks blocked Georgia’s ability to communicate after the military assault began. US-CCU said the physical attacks and cyberattacks were so closely timed that there had to be close cooperation between members of the military and the civilian cyberattackers. In addition, researchers found that Russia’s organized crime aided and supported the civilian attackers, and online social networks were used to recruit and coordinate the attacks.

Also, Georgia’s response to the cyberattacks demonstrated the problems posed by conflicts that spill into cyberspace, said Daniel Kuehl, a professor at the National Defense University and director of its Information Strategies Concentration Program.

“Georgia didn't have much success [in responding to the attacks], except when the targeted Web sites of its president, for example, were moved elsewhere,” Kuehl said. “Some sites were moved to Poland and some to the U.S., but this also raises a very interesting set of questions about neutrality.”

For example, it's not clear what activity would constitute a sufficiently damaging cyber event to make NATO get involved, according to an article Kuehl wrote on the topic.

Bumgarner said the situation is complicated by the lack of internationally agreed-upon definitions of cyber conflicts, and the problem of identifying the attackers makes it difficult to use deterrence as a strategy.

“In cyberspace, where are the boundaries? Where are the borders? What type of attacks are allowed and what type of attacks are not allowed?” Bumgarner asked. “In modern warfare, it’s not acceptable to attack a Red Cross station, but in cyberspace, it’s easy to take out a piece of telecommunications equipment or some other type of component that’s being used by a hospital.”

About the Authors

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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