What Fearmongers Get Wrong About Cyberwarfare

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May 28 2012 8:00 AM

What Fearmongers Get Wrong About Cyberwarfare

Cyberweapons aren’t easy or cheap to procure—and they could even promote peace.

Former chief counter-terrorism adviser on the US National Security Council Richard Clarke.
Former chief counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke has warned about cyberwarfare

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Should we worry about cyberwarfare? Judging by excessively dramatic headlines in the media, very much so. Cyberwarfare, the argument goes, might make wars easier to start and thus more likely.

Why so? First, cyberwarfare is asymmetric; being cheap and destructive, it may nudge weaker states to conflicts with stronger states—the kinds of conflicts that would have been avoided in the past. Second, since cyberattacks are notoriously difficult to trace, actors may not fear swift retaliation and behave more aggressively than usual. Third, as it's hard to defend against cyberattacks, most rational states would prefer to attack first. Finally, since cyberweapons are surrounded by secrecy and uncertainty, arms control agreements are hard to implement. More cyberwarfare, in other words, means more wars.

Not so fast, cautions a new and extremely provocative article by Princeton doctoral candidate Adam Liff in the Journal of Strategic Studies. According to Liff, to assume that cyberwarfare has an inherent logic—a teleology—that would always result in more conflict is short-sighted. Furthermore, it fails to consider the subtleties of both military strategy and power relations. Instead of basing our cyber policy on outlandish scenarios from second-rate films, we have to remember that those who would deploy cyberweapons have real agendas and real interests—and would have to pay real costs if something goes awry.

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Given today's geopolitical situation, Liff sees no reason for the doom-and-gloom fearmongering of leading ambassadors of the cyber-industrial complex, most notoriously Richard Clarke and his best-selling 2010 book Cyberwar. Liff even spells out several scenarios where cyberwarfare would actually decrease armed conflict. That's right: The advent of cyberweapons may eventually promote world peace. Hippies of the world unite—and learn how to mount cyberattacks!

Cyberwarfare may seem asymmetrical, but it's a myth that advanced cyberweapons are cheap and easily available. Developing them requires a lot of resources, time, and operational secrecy. Weak actors are not really capable of mounting protracted attacks that could cripple the infrastructure of well-defended systems.

But even if they were, they would probably choose not to engage in cyberwarfare. Offensive cyberattacks by weaker states make sense only if they can back up their digital might with conventional weapons. Otherwise, they might get wiped out by the conventional military response of the stronger state. This explains why Somalia or Tajikistan is not likely to wage cyberwarfare against the United States anytime soon; whatever damage they might cause through cyberattacks would be quickly responded to with conventional weapons.

Nor would states engaged in cyberwarfare necessarily know about the actual consequences of their own cyberattacks. Even advanced actors like the United States may have no idea about the probability of success of such attacks. The risk of self-inflicted damage is high, and cyberattacks might inadvertently push some otherwise lucrative assets (like an enemy's banking infrastructure) off the table. Such uncertainty may be the best deterrent of all.

As Liff points out, it's facile to think that rational actors would prefer to exploit one another’s cyber-vulnerabilities and engage in a costly cyberwar if they can find other, cheaper ways of settling their conflict. Here the availability of cyberweapons, whatever their actual destructive potential, might actually allow weaker states to get better bargains from their stronger adversaries, perhaps even avoiding conflict.

Likewise, we shouldn't forget that wars are primarily about coercion—and it's hard to coerce other actors without claiming responsibility for the damage caused to their property. Yes, cyberattacks may be hard to trace—but any government that uses them in expectation of getting other governments to act in accordance with its wishes would want to claim such attacks as its own. (The reason why Russia didn't claim responsibility for the cyberattacks in Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008 is because those attacks were mostly inconsequential; an act of mere hacktivism in the former case and a sideshow to the kinetic war on the ground in the latter.)