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The cyberwar doctrine debate: Meaningful without international sign on?

Experts are divided, with some saying online means it has to be international in scope, while others say keeping policy classified is critical

By Antone Gonsalves, CSO
December 11, 2012 08:01 AM ET

CSO - As U.S. officials wrestle with the development of a cyberwar doctrine, there is a bit of wrestling in the security community about whether any doctrine will be worth much if other nation states don't sign on to it as well.

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One view is that it would be about as effective as one nation unilaterally declaring that a war is over. Such a declaration is worthless unless the other side, or sides, agree. But another view is that the U.S. should have a doctrine -- it just shouldn't tip its hand to hostile nations by telling anybody what it is.

Dennis Fisher, editor-in-chief of Threatpost and a security evangelist for Kaspersky Lab, made the first argument in response to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other political and military officials' recent discussions of the value of different cyberwar strategies, including "active defense," along with possible standards on when an attack or other cyber operation would be justified.

"Cyberwar doctrine supposedly would lay out ground rules for offensive operations and specify who is responsible for taking those actions," Fisher wrote last week. "Such rules are vital for conventional military operations, but in the online environment they're unlikely to be of much use."

The first problem, he wrote, is international cooperation. "In order for it to really matter, to really work, the other parties involved in cyberwar operations need to have similar policies," he wrote. "A declaration of U.S. policies regarding cyberwar does no good without similar ones from China, Iran and every other nation involved."

The general consensus is that those nations are not in the mood to make any kind of deal that would limit their online activities.

Also, it is not just the government that is under threat of attack. It is also private companies, including hundreds of government contractors and operators of critical infrastructure, Fisher wrote. "This is where much of the data that is flowing out of U.S. networks is coming from, not necessarily just from government agencies. Private companies are key targets for foreign attackers, and those companies are on their own when it comes to both defense and offense."

And it is not just nation states that pose threats to the U.S., said Gary McGraw, CTO of Cigital and a vocal opponent of active defense. He has noted in recent speeches and essays that any number of groups can develop cyber "rocks" and throw them with very little risk of being caught, since they can cover their tracks so effectively.

[Brian Krebs: The cyberwar will not be streamed]

John Felker, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain and vice president of cyber programs at SCI Consulting Services, agrees with McGraw that developing devastating cyber weapons is much easier than conventional weapons like bombs and missiles. "The price of entry is low," he said.

And while U.S. officials claim they are getting much better at attribution, or finding specifically where an attack came from, experts including McGraw remain unconvinced. "If they have solved [attribution], they need to tell us hard-core security people how they did it, because we don't really believe them," he said last month. He noted that a major retaliation against a party that didn't launch an attack could be more catastrophic than the initial attack.

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