America’s Cyber Security Dilemma — and A Way Out

Establishing internationally accepted rules for the conduct and legitimacy of engaging in cyberattacks could go a long way toward reducing the risks of today's relatively unrestricted cyberwarfare.

Cpl Garrett White/U.S. Marines

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Establishing internationally accepted rules for the conduct and legitimacy of engaging in cyberattacks could go a long way toward reducing the risks of today's relatively unrestricted cyberwarfare.

The network era has changed the rules of arms buildups.

A security dilemma occurs when one nation’s efforts to improve its security prompts other nations to take similar actions — often provoking arms races, instability, even war. But while such dilemmas have typically led to more-or-less balanced buildups on all sides, today’s U.S. military spending patterns are driving adversaries in a different direction: towards cheaper, cyber-focused means of undermining a network-dependent force and the society it protects.

The way out of this cybersecurity dilemma must be equally unconventional: continue to establish cyberspace rules of engagement, improve and increase government-industry partnerships, and strengthen oversight and regulation of cyber-enabled technologies. 

Among the actors working to exploit new network-enabled technologies and the American dependence on them are the Islamic State, al-Qaida, Russia, and China, but perhaps the archetypal example is Iran. Its political and defense leaders realize that they cannot compete militarily against the United States, and stand little chance against Israel, a U.S. ally, in conventional combat. Iran also recognizes that it is in many respects outgunned by its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, and has on occasion sought to redress its differences through hostile actions in cyberspace.

With its nuclear program on hold, Iran is trying to bridge the conventional military gap between the country and its competitors by shifting some resources to develop cyber capabilities. Iranian hackers have progressed far beyond defacing websites and disrupting network services. They can now develop and use sophisticated software to probe for vulnerabilities, inject malware, and gain control of adversary systems.

The Iranians have targeted public- and private-sector industrial control systems, including the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems that drive utilities and industrial automation. In a rare move, the United States indicted several Iranian citizens in March that it alleges were working as hackers for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian government. These hackers are accused of conducting cyberattacks on myriad entities, including the New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ, Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, and AT&T. Perhaps even more troubling, Iranian hackers purportedly gained unauthorized remote access to a computer controlling the Bowman Avenue Dam in upstate New York. While no physical damage occurred, the demonstrated capability was extremely concerning.

What can the United States do about this cybersecurity dilemma?

It could try to decrease its military and economic reliance on cyberspace and correspondingly reduce its level of vulnerability. However, such a move would likely have enormous economic costs and significant associated losses in business and military productivity. This option is even less palatable when viewed in light of the relative gains that would be realized by competitors who do not likewise reduce their investments in cyberspace.

The United States could also raise the costs to its competitors for engaging in cyberattacks. For instance, it could develop an explicit policy of responding to particularly injurious cyberattacks with significant and visible combinations of cyber and kinetic retaliations and/or diplomatic and economic sanctions. Yet the U.S. officials cannot be sure how the execution of declared policy of escalation would be perceived or responded to by others—even if they could reasonably assume that the origin, identity, and intent of an attack or attacker could be ascertained in a timely fashion. If this prescription were followed, mistakes or miscalculations could lead to war.

The risks of these two paths lead us to a third: the United States should instead continue to pursue international cooperation in cyberspace, improve its ability to identify and expose the sources of attacks, and improve its oversight of the development and adoption of cyber-related technologies. Although not a panacea, following each step would help ensure that U.S. military investments in cyber capabilities are balanced against the attendant risks.

Most importantly of those three, the United States should continue to help craft international rules of engagement for behavior in cyberspace. Establishing internationally accepted rules for the conduct and legitimacy of engaging in cyberattacks could go a long way toward reducing the risks associated with the relatively unrestricted modes of warfare now occurring in and through cyberspace.

The United States should also continue to work on developing methods for quickly and accurately identifying the source of any attacks launched against its military, businesses or individuals. Although forming partnerships between the government and businesses has proven difficult in the past, such continued partnerships are necessary to this effort. Identifying and exposing the actors engaging in cyberattacks could help the United States redress economic losses and improve its ability to defend against future attacks. Increasing awareness of bad actors and their methods of attack also benefits the broader community of interested parties.

The United States should continue to improve its regulation and oversight of the development and adoption of new software and technologies. Networks and many of their components are inherently and increasingly insecure. Their vulnerabilities are exacerbated by the rapid and nearly exponential adoption of new applications and technologies where speed of development and convenience are often prioritized over the mitigation of potential security concerns. And while the U.S. military takes security into account when adopting new technologies, the progressive employment of commercially developed cyber-enablers invites the risk of additional vulnerabilities.

Though the United States may have unwittingly created this security dilemma, it is too late to reverse course now. Its best chance of maintaining its military advantage—in both the conventional and cyber domains—requires a sober assessment of the path that it has chosen and deliberate steps to reduce the vulnerabilities it has created.

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