Global cyber arms race may be brewing

A few years ago, it was common to see slick TV commercials that advertised the Air Force’s cyber warfare capabilities. Although the commercials might have targeted recruits, they also sent a message about the military's might in this new Information Age domain.

Robert Knake, an international affairs fellow in residence at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author with Richard Clarke of the book "Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It," said he worried that other countries might be alarmed by the commercials' saber-rattling about cyber war.

“This kind of talk had gotten a little bit out of control,” Knake said.

Now, with the launch of the military's Cyber Command, Knake said the Defense Department should work with the State Department and its diplomatic channels to assure other countries that the new command is oriented toward defense.

However, others say the United States doesn’t have to apologize for developing offensive cyber capabilities. A report released last year states that Russia, China, Israel and France are also developing advanced offensive cyber capabilities, and although there hasn’t been an active cyber war, a cyber cold war might have already started.

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Paul Kurtz, a cybersecurity expert who served on the White House's National Security and Homeland Security councils during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and now a managing partner based in the United Arab Emirates for Good Harbor Consulting, wrote the report for security technology company McAfee.

Meanwhile, offensive cyber capabilities are not the exclusive province of large or wealthy countries. They also present an opportunity for weaker nations or other groups to fight above their weight class. A small but well-organized group could do damage to a much larger, established military through a cyberattack, and countries that use criminal organizations or so-called patriot hackers to do their dirty work present another problem for the United States.

“Somewhere in between traditional stone-throwing at an embassy and launching an air strike right now sits cyber conflict,” Knake said.

Those variables present new problems for the people who must thwart would-be cyberattackers.

“We have to make it painful and dangerous” with a real threat of retaliation, said Air Force Gen. Ronald Keys, former commander of the Air Combat Command. “Or we have to make it not worth it, or make it really hard.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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