Shaky Cyber Trigger Fingers

VIENNA – A media storm centered on the “emerging cyber threat” has turbocharged the public debate on cyber security in the United States – and raised the stakes in bilateral relations with China. While wider public awareness of the cyber threat should be welcomed, the increasingly strident discourse may not help alleviate tensions in cyberspace. In the medium term, it might even increase the risk of serious cyber conflict.

A recent report by the US Department of Defense employs the strongest language yet to implicate China’s government and military in cyber espionage, including on computer systems owned by the US government. The report also warns that, for those targeted by such activities, distinguishing between espionage and preparations for serious cyber attacks is virtually impossible. What the report does not mention is that this ambiguity has another important implication: a serious cyber conflict could easily be triggered by accident.

This means that China’s alleged incursions are not the only threat; America’s increasingly forceful position on cyber espionage could inadvertently trigger a cyber war. After all, actions about cyberspace can be misunderstood just as easily as activities in cyberspace.

In this context, the US government should tread lightly. While invoking the specter of cyber attacks may help to mobilize domestic support for security legislation, it may also increase the likelihood of a major cyber conflict. As another recent report from the US Department of Defense suggests, a cyber war could be catastrophic: military aircraft could be grounded, or, in an extreme scenario, parts of America’s nuclear arsenal could be compromised. Civilians would suffer considerably in such a “permanently degraded cyber environment,” which could include the collapse of energy and utility services. The lights might not simply go out; they could remain off for a long time.