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.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1986, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

  • Shutterstock image.

    Merged IT modernization bill punts on funding

    A House panel approved a new IT modernization bill that appears poised to pass, but key funding questions are left for appropriators.

  • General Frost

    Army wants cyber capability everywhere

    The Army's cyber director said cyber, electronic warfare and information operations must be integrated into warfighters' doctrine and training.

  • Rising Star 2013

    Meet the 2016 Rising Stars

    FCW honors 30 early-career leaders in federal IT.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group