Stuxnet ≠ cyberwar, says US Army Cyber Command officer

AusCERT: What is cyberwar anyway?


While “cyber* operations” are becoming an increasing focus of both government and private research, legal frameworks are failing to keep pace, the US Army Cyber Command operational attorney Robert Clark has told the AusCERT security conference in Queensland.

As noted earlier by F-Secure’s Mikko Hypponen in his keynote address to the conference, the hundreds of jobs available for exploit research and creation in private defence contractors represent a huge shift in the source of attacks. Today's exploits, Hypponen said, are more likely to emerge from a cubicle farm instead of a “black hat” hacker's grubby keyboard.

However, the world is only at the very beginning of developing a legal response to such activities, said Clark.

Documents like the International Strategy for Cyberspace begin to change the landscape, since for the first time they attempt to wrap a formal framework around cyber-security – including deciding that “our cyber-security must be based on law or the [US] Constitution,” Clark said.

That foundation is important because computer-based espionage gives a victim no recourse against the information-gatherer, as only local law is useful against a ‘spy’. “Collecting information is not illegal under international law”, Clark said.

While happy to label so-called outbreaks of “cyber-war” as “B.S.”, Clark stated that “governments are in the business of offensive cyber-operations now.”

Clark also said that cyber “attack” is over-used in the media, as he feels the planet is yet to see a real cyber-attack . “Stuxnet was not a cyber ‘attack’, Estonia was not a cyber ‘attack’, that pipeline that some people say ‘yeah, that was malicious code’ wasn’t a cyber ‘attack’,” he said.

“Stuxnet was a big campaign,” he says, by virtue of its use of a combination of software, its attack vectors, its use of digital certificates. He is therefore happy to label it “a game-changer”. However, by the more precise definitions needed to invoke laws of armed conflicts, that does not create the conditions needed to regard it as a cyber-attack.

And why does this definition matter? In other words, why should we care about loose media use of “cyber war”? Because, Clark explained to El Reg: if policy-makers are only informed by the catchphrase and not the definition, they will make bad policy. ®

Bootnote:* El Reg hates the word as well. Refreshingly, Clark agrees, but said he can’t avoid using it, given his job description.

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