Why Cyberwar Is Unlikely
In this last of a three-part series, SecurityNewsDaily explores truths, distortions, confusions and likelihood of cyberwar. Click for Part 1: Cyberwar: Definition, Hype and Reality and Part 2: What Cyberwar Would Look Like.
Even as more and more countries invest in the idea of cyberwarfare, cyberspace remains largely peaceful insofar as actual war is concerned.
In the two decades since cyberwar first became possible, there hasn't been a single event that politicians, generals and security experts agree on as having passed the threshold for strategic cyberwar .
In fact, the attacks that have occurred have fallen so far short of a proper cyberwar that many have begun to doubt that cyberwarfare is even possible.
The reluctance to engage in strategic cyberwarfare stems mostly from the uncertain results such a conflict would bring, the lack of motivation on the part of the possible combatants and their shared inability to defend against counterattacks .
Many of the systems that an aggressive cyberattack would damage are actually as valuable to any potential attacker as they would be to the victim.
The five countries capable of large-scale cyberwar (Israel, the U.S., the U.K., Russia and China) have more to lose if a cyberwar were to escalate into a shooting war than they would gain from a successful cyberattack.
"The half-dozen countries that have cyber capability are deterred from cyberwar because of the fear of the American response. Nobody wants this to spiral out of control," said James Lewis, senior fellow and director of technology and public policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
"The countries that are capable of doing this don't have a reason to," Lewis added. "Chinese officials have said to me, 'Why would we bring down Wall Street when we own so much of it?' They like money almost as much as we do."
Big deterrent: retaliation
Deterrence plays a major factor in preventing cyberwar. Attacks across the Internet would favor the aggressor so heavily that no country has developed an effective defense.
Should one country initiate a cyberattack, the victim could quickly counter-attack, leaving both countries equally degraded, Lewis told InnovationNewsDaily.
Even if an attacker were to overcome his fear of retaliation, the low rate of success would naturally give him pause.
Any cyberattack would target the types of complex systems that could collapse on their own, such as electrical systems or banking networks.
But experience gained in fixing day-to-day problems on those systems would allow the engineers who maintain them to quickly undo damage caused by even the most complex cyberattack, said George Smith, a senior fellow at Globalsecurity.org in Alexandria, Va.
"You mean to tell me that the people who work the electrical system 24 hours a day don't respond to problems? What prevents people from turning the lights right back on?" Smith told SecurityNewsDaily. "And attacks on the financial system have always been a non-starter for me. I mean, [in 2008] the financial system attacked the U.S.!"
Of course, just because political, technological and economic concerns have prevented cyberwar thus far does not mean the situation cannot change. Some analysts believe that the cost of getting caught flatfooted by a cyberattack more than justifies investing in protection against future threats.
"The situation could change," said Sami Saydjari, chairman of Professionals for Cyber Defense, a organization formed to "advocate, advise and advance sound cyber defense policy for the United States of America."
"For example, if we ended up in a shooting war with China, for whatever reason, they have a capability to take out our infrastructure," Saydjari said. "We don't want them to be able to do that. We don't want our enemies to even have the potential to do that, even if they currently have no incentive to do so."
The big worry: terrorism
And then there's the issue of terrorism. Undeterred by possible counterattack and unencumbered by economic and political ties, terrorist groups make the most feared attackers in a hypothetical cyberwar.
"One day we're going to wake up and find that Al Qaeda or one of these more extreme groups will get this capability. That's what I worry about," Lewis said. "They don't have this capability now. There's some indication that they know about the black market. But it's like them trying to acquire any other advanced weapon system."
But so far, there's no evidence that any terrorist group plans on launching a cyberattack against the U.S. In fact, there's not really any evidence that any country plans on initiating cyberwar against any other country in the near future.
For the last 20 years, and into the foreseeable future, it's remained all quiet in the cyber front.
"I would give people who say there's an enormous cyber threat the benefit of the doubt. But I've been hearing this for close to twenty years now," said Martin Libicki, a senior policy analyst in cyber issues for the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif.
"Twenty years after Kitty Hawk, airplanes were an integral part of warfare," Libicki said. "By comparison, cyberwar hasn't advanced nearly as quickly."