Cyberspace matters. We know this because governments and militaries around the world are scrambling to control the digital space even as they slash defense spending in other areas, rapidly building up cyber forces with which to defend their own virtual territories and attack those of their rivals.
But we do not yet know how much cyberspace matters, at least in security terms. Is it merely warfare’s new periphery, the theatre for a 21st century Cold War that will be waged unseen, and with practically no real-world consequences? Or is it emerging as the most important battle-space of the information age, the critical domain in which future wars will be won and lost?
For the time being, some states appear quite content to err on the side of boldness when it comes to cyber. This brazen approach to cyber operations – repeated attacks followed by often flimsy denials – almost suggests a view of cyberspace as a parallel universe in which actions do not carry real-world consequences. This would be a risky assumption. The victims of cyber attacks are becoming increasingly sensitive about what they perceive as acts of aggression, and are growing more inclined to retaliate, either legally, virtually, or perhaps even kinetically.
The United States, in particular, appears to have run out of patience with the stream of cyber attacks targeting it from China – Google and The New York Times being just two of the most high-profile victims – and which President Obama has now insisted are at least partly state-sponsored.
Although setting up a cybersecurity working group with China, Washington has also signaled it intends to escalate. U.S. Cyber Command and NSA chief General Keith Alexander signaled this shift of policy gears earlier this month when he told Congress that of 40 new CYBERCOM teams currently being assembled, 13 would be focused on offensive operations. Gen Alexander also gave new insight into CYBERCOM’s operational structure. The command will consist of three groups, he said: one to protect critical infrastructure; a second to support the military’s regional commands; and a third to conduct national offensive operations.
As cyber competition intensifies between the U.S. and China in particular, the international community approaches a crossroads. States might begin to rein in their cyber operations before things get further out of hand, adopt a rules-based system governing cyberspace, and start respecting one another’s virtual sovereignty much as they do one another’s physical sovereignty. Or, if attacks and counter-attacks are left unchecked, cyberspace may become the venue for a new Cold War for the Internet generation. Much as the old Cold War was characterized by indirect conflict involving proxy forces in third-party states, its 21st century reboot might become a story of virtual conflict prosecuted by shadowy actors in the digital realm. And as this undeclared conflict poisons bilateral relations over time, the risk of it spilling over into kinetic hostilities will only grow.