Cyberattack Report

Earlier today, a panel of scientists and retired military officers assembled by the National Academy of Sciences issued recommendations about US cyberwar policy in a report titled “Technology Policy, Law and Ethics Regarding US Acquisition and Use of Cyberattack Capabilities” (http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12651&page=1).

The panel offers the following definition of a cyberattack:

The use of deliberate actions—perhaps over an extended period of time—to alter, disrupt, deceive, degrade or destroy adversary computer systems or networks or the information and/or programs resident in or transiting these systems or networks. A cyberattack seeks to cause adversary computer systems and networks to be unavailable or untrustworthy and therefore less useful to the adversary.

Cyberattack is distinguished from “cyberexploitation,” which is defined as:

The use of cyberoffensive actions—perhaps over an extended period of time—to support the goals and missions of the party conducting the exploitation, usually for the purpose of obtaining information resident in or transiting through an adversary’s computer systems or networks. Cyberexploitations do not seek to disturb the normal functioning of a computer system or network from the user’s point of view—indeed, the best cyberexploitation is one that such a user never notices.

One of the main findings and recommendations of the report was that US cyberattack plans, procedures and policies have not been subject to significant public debate and therefore are too secretive. The panel believes that public discussion of these issues would be beneficial.

Despite the arguments of the panel, openly discussing these aspects of cyberattacks would jeopardize US national security because it would inform potential adversaries about how the Pentagon might conduct cyberattacks against them in a future conflict. Furthermore, setting public policies about cyber warfare could tie the hands of an administration that has to respond to cyberattacks launched against the US by hostile nations, terrorist groups or individuals seeking to harm American computer systems or networks. It is generally US policy to leave all options on the table when it comes to dealing with foreign policy problems or crises, which is a wise position to take because it offers flexibility and may deter adversaries from taking aggressive actions that would be harmful to US interests.

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