The Maturing Cyber-defense

From homegrown snoops to Chinese threats, America’s cyber-space has been poked, prodded and downright compromised for most of its existence. But, now it seems as if the lethargic American cyber-defense is poised to awaken and transform into an offensive weapon – possibly with the assistance of civilian computing power.

The goals are technologically feasible, but still rather ambitious – reduce the more than 4000 government pathways that send and receive internet traffic to approximately 50. And all of this is poised to be done by June 30th, 2008. By limiting the entry and exit-points of data, government IT personnel will have greater control over leaks and increased awareness regarding the source and nature of incoming communication. Most analysts agree that this step is long overdue, but the plans don’t’ stop there.

Since the crippling cyber-attacks last year in Estonia, officials from NATO, the European Union, the United States and Israel have been planning an appropriate response and the word has just come in. Seven NATO nations have just backed a “cyber defense center” in Estonia. According to the BBC, “the US will initially send an observer to the project, which will have some 30 staff when fully operational in August”. In effect, a cyber outpost for research and real-world practice of cyber reconnaissance and espionage for the U.S., Germany, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Italy, Spain and Israel has just been set up on the heels of the Russian Federation.

The lessons learned from this facility will serve to stockpile the maturing U.S. cyber-offensive warmachine, and the military isn’t wasting any time in the endeavor. The USAF is currently requesting whitepapers for scientific studies and experiments designed to foster “Dominant Cyber Offensive Engagement and Supporting Technology”. Additionally, high-ranking officers from the air force have openly called for the creation of a military Botnet (see Wikipedia) – a collection of software robots running autonomously and automatically, controlled by the military and ready to attack targets deemed worthy of cyber attack.

Reducing the number of government gateways to the internet, and training personnel in the art of cyber-defense and response are fine and good, but the details of the Botnet proposal coupled with the overused rationale of national security bring about some interesting questions.

Firstly, especially in light of the military’s track record in Iraq, language from Colonel Williamson’s proposal (excerpted below) point to a proclivity to attack civilian targets:

Some people would fear the possibility of botnet attcks on innocent parties. If the botnet is used in a strictly offensive manner, civilian computers may be attacked, but only if the enemy compels us. The U.S. will perform the same target preparation as for traditional targets and respect the law of armed conflict as Defense Department policy requires by analyzing necessity, proportionality and distinction among military, dual-use or civilian targets.

Secondly, what is to stop the military from using the computing power of U.S. businesses for this proposed Botnet?

Though the threat of cyber-attacks are quite real and warrant a rational concerted defense and response, it would be a tragedy if this reality were co-opted to justify a digital version of ‘more of the same’ – government directed terrorizing attacks on foreign civilians.