History is rich with rules for conducting war. The Geneva and Hague conventions comprise the modern international law of armed conflict, while humanitarian norms are detailed as far back as the Old Testament. But for some of today’s most dangerous threats, there are no such laws — at least, not yet.
Cyberspace is so new a domain that many of its standard operating procedures are still being determined. Unfortunately, that’s happening while a new era of digital warfare is unfolding.
Present-day cyber risks run the gamut from fairly innocuous password hacks to attacks with the potential to bring a country’s daily operations to a grinding halt. While the latter hasn’t happened yet, the government’s highest-level leaders insist the capability is there.
“I’m very concerned at the potential to be able to cripple our power grid, to be able to cripple our government systems, to be able to cripple our financial systems,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June. “It would virtually paralyze this country. And as far as I’m concerned, that represents the potential for another Pearl Harbor, as far as the kind of attack that we could be the target of” using cyber warfare.
The Defense Department is seeking to navigate the way ahead in cyber war, or so-called non-kinetic warfare, but it’s a complicated process that is subject to numerous delays. Partnership with a number of government agencies and industry is required, and officials are still determining who should do what, how and when. Even trickier is deciding what constitutes an act of cyber war.
Right now, a primary goal is to establish that governance with new cyber rules of engagement, a digital-era version of the laws that guide U.S. participation in conflict.
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