A hacking group backed by North Korean government reveals the inner machinations of Sony Corporation because of a James Franco comedy. Once upon a time, such a headline would only be found in an alternate reality. However, in 2014, that is precisely what occurred.
In June 2017, a cyber assault on Ukraine was used to shut down the airport, the railway system, the banks, and the radiation monitoring system inside the Chernobyl power plant.[i]
Most recently, 13 Russian citizens were indicted by the Department of Justice on suspicion of a conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, as well as six counts of aggravated identity theft, due to their attempts to wage information warfare against the United States.[ii]
In all three examples, a group of hackers was sponsored or was suspected to have been sponsored by a state government. Their goal was to cause a disruption in the target’s daily activities as well as substantial actual and potential economic losses. Yet, none of the attacks were treated as acts of war.
So, were these just cyberterrorist attacks?
The Oxford Dictionary says that cyberterrorism is “the politically motivated use of computers and information technology to cause severe disruption or widespread fear in society.”[iii]
Some states, like Poland, adopt a similar general definition of cyberterrorism. [iv] On the other hand, others choose to be more specific and list what sort of acts constitute cyberterrorism. For example, South Korea includes DDoS attacks as well as Worm viruses as some of the specific forms cyberterrorism can take.
While the majority of these definitions focus on non-state actors, the act of terrorism itself is usually guided by a political motive and a desire to instill fear.
Defining “Act of War”
Title 18 of United States Code defines “act of war” as any act that occurs in the course of declared war; armed conflict, whether or not war has been declared, between two or more nations; or armed conflict between military forces of any origin. [v]
The broad scope of this definition, gives a lot of flexibility when deciding what is and is not an act of war. However, the requirement that the act occur in the course of armed conflict complicates things as it limits the fighting to the military sphere. Thus, unless the target of the cyber attack is a military installation, it would seem that an act of war did not take place.
Such definition of act of war is problematic if a situation like the June 2017 Ukrainian cyber attacks were to occur in the United States. Would a ransom cyber attack on the post office or the AmTrak be considered an act of war? Would a single civilian death as a result of the cyber attack be enough to classify it as an act of war?
In conclusion, the lines between cyberterrorism and state-sponsored cyber attacks, are yet to be clearly drawn. With the ongoing investigation into the Russian interference into the United States election, it is hard to gauge the impact of a single cyber act. In fact, I would argue that trying to distinguish between cyberterrorism and cyber warfare is a waste of resources because the two are often intertwined. The nature of the cyber space itself makes it difficult, nay, impossible to tell the difference between the activities of state sponsored actors and independent hacking groups. Ergo, instead of trying to distinguish between cyber activity, it would be more prudent to update the current definition of the act of war.
Questions to Consider
 How would you define cyberterrorism? Do you think a broader, catch-all definition would serve a better function over one with specific examples?
 In the grand scheme, does it matter whether or not a cyber attack is defined as an act of war or an act of terrorism? If not, does this mean that the fact that the attacker is a state government versus a non-state actor is not relevant?
 Is damage caused by a cyber attack comparable to damages caused by physical act of terrorism/war? If so, then shouldn’t substantial state-sponsored cyber attacks be treated as acts of war?
 If a state sponsored cyber attack occurs on the electrical grid and civilian deaths occur as a result, should such an event be considered an act of war?
~ by msololomiy on March 11, 2018.
Posted in CyberSecurity, Uncategorized
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