Cyber War and Peace

The world is only just beginning to see glimpses of cyber war – in the denial-of-service attacks that accompanied the conventional war in Georgia in 2008, or the recent sabotage of Iranian centrifuges. States have the greatest capabilities, but non-state actors are more likely to initiate a catastrophic attack.

CAMBRIDGE – Two years ago, a piece of faulty computer code infected Iran’s nuclear program and destroyed many of the centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Some observers declared this apparent sabotage to be the harbinger of a new form of warfare, and United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned Americans of the danger of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” attack on the US. But what do we really know about cyber conflict?

The cyber domain of computers and related electronic activities is a complex man-made environment, and human adversaries are purposeful and intelligent. Mountains and oceans are hard to move, but portions of cyberspace can be turned on and off by throwing a switch. It is far cheaper and quicker to move electrons across the globe than to move large ships long distances.

The costs of developing those vessels – multiple carrier task forces and submarine fleets – create enormous barriers to entry, enabling US naval dominance. But the barriers to entry in the cyber domain are so low that non-state actors and small states can play a significant role at low cost.

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