Can a cyber-attack really be considered an 'act of war'?

Summary:While cyber-attacks could be -- criminologically speaking -- seen an act of war, the response should not be disproportionate or militarised.

The limelight as firmly shone on the Pentagon's decision to classify severe cyber-attacks as an act of war.

Considering the recent social engineering attacks which led to compromised government Gmail accounts, the two are now seemingly connected. One has to wonder whether an attack on cloud-based government email could also be considered one-sided warfare.

Declaring an action as an 'act of war' is entirely subjective, and should be proportional to not only political belief, but public opinion also.

If every known Gmail account was hacked, copied and sent back to the originating source -- say China, for instance, as they have been accused already (and have been caught once before) -- then perhaps that breach could be considered an act of extreme espionage.

The Iranian Stuxnet worm incident, for example, could however be considered an act of war, from U.S. government involvement directly attacking an Iranian nuclear reactor.

To understand whether an act of war equates directly or equally to an act of terrorism, firstly we need to determine exactly what an act of war is. Is it 'simply enough' terrorist attack, or does it require state involvement?

Potentially, the worst case scenario is the U.S. could become embroiled in a war with a country of origin, for which it had no state collusion in the cyber-attack which brought the tanks rocking up on the shores in retaliation.

Nevertheless, while the Pentagon may consider a serious cyber-attack an 'act of war', retaliation does not necessarily have to be a direct consequence.

A short digression: 'Terrorism' as a blanket term

The September 11th terrorist attack was considered an act of war, for which the Allies led into Afghanistan and eventually Iraq, and arguably violated Pakistani sovereignty when the U.S. assassinated Osama bin Laden.

Yet in the case of the Lockerbie bombing, there have been issues of state collusion. Colonel Gaddafi himself was reported, by a defected minister, to have authorised the bombing of Pan Am flight 103.

Why we haven't invaded Libya under the premise that this could have been an 'act of war', I do not know.

Oh, wait.

Terrorism is action based, not actor based. The definition of terrorism is entirely subjective, with over 100 academic definitions and another 80 or so taken into laws of various countries.

The British definition, for example, is different to that of the United States; one of many reasons why Wikileaks can be classified as a terrorist organisation in the U.S. but not necessarily in Britain.

Can a state commit an act of terrorism?

In short, yes it can. But it depends entirely on the act of terrorism itself.

State terrorism is not necessarily abiding by the same realms that a conspiracy theorist may believe. Some believe that the September 11th terrorist attacks were orchestrated or at least played a part in by the U.S. government, for example.

The official account says that it did not. A series of intelligence failures led to a wide-ranging set of vulnerabilities which was ultimately exploited by terrorists. This reflexive account can be ported far and wide, from the Internet being a force for good, but equally a portal for predators to abuse.

State terrorism therefore is related directly to the action, along with the subjective perceptions that go along with it.

Objectively speaking, the London bombings could be seen as retaliatory actions against the Western movement in Afghanistan states. It falls down to, as the cliché may go, "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". It is above all else, true.

State terrorism theory dictates that a U.S. drone strike in a foreign land which kills a series of suspected militia members, but also the same number of civilians, is directly proportional to a civilian suicide bomber detonating their vest of explosives at an army checkpoint.

We, as Westerners, would deplore such "an act of terrorism". However, the remaining civilian population would equally denounce the U.S. drone strike on their population, calling that an act of terrorism in its own right.

So how do we stop cyber-attacks?

We can't, and we won't be able to stop every single attack there is. There is no single reason for why terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001. However, had that not happened, it would have happened elsewhere.

Terrorists do not necessarily want to harm the ideals, values, morals and beliefs of the Western world. Nor, as the case appears to be, do terrorists want to definitively 'spread terror'. It is merely a by-product of normal people in an abnormal world.

Cyber-attacks can only be carried out if there are vulnerabilities. Westerners have a preoccupation with risk and vulnerability, and vulnerabilities can only be absolved often once an exploit has been found.

But as no system, government or state is entirely secure, along with an ever burgeoning fascination with the macabre and the 'psychology of the terrorist' by the media, no wonder we are all half terrified to death most of the time.

The greatest danger is the United States or any other country acting without hesitation, against a country which has no direct or indirect involvement with a cyber-attack. Citizens of a country which have carried out an attack may lead to finding internal intelligence failings, but does not mean that country is to blame.

Responsibility should logically be shared for both states allowing the attack to occur.

And in what form should the retaliation take? Should it be a giant denial-of-service attack by the U.S. military -- a warfare campaign without fatalities -- or a Stuxnet variant to set a nuclear programme back a decade or two?

Punishment needs to be escapable; otherwise it is disproportionate and unfair. War, on the most part, is not escapable, which is why the cyber-warfare strategy needs to be handled by computers, and computers alone, without the need for tanks, soldiers and unmanned drone strikes.

Related content:

Topics: Government : US, Government

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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