The Expert's View

Cyberwar: Enemy Needn't Be a Nation-State

Denying we're in a virtual war threatens America's interests.

In the Kubler-Ross model, most commonly known as the five stages of grief, the first stage of coping with a tragedy is denial. So let's get this out of the way right now, by acknowledging that we are irrefutably, 100 percent engaged in cyberwar

An interviewer recently asked renowned security expert Bruce Schneier whether the WikiLeaks activity and subsequent distributed denial of service attacks against PayPal, MasterCard and Visa indicate that a cyberwar is underway? Schneier's response was that this was "completely idiotic" and cyberwar could only occur between nation-states. I'm disappointed with Schneier's response because he ignores the fact that cyberwar does not have the appearance of a traditional military conflict.

It may not look like a traditional military conflict, but the goal is the same: to damage the United States. 

Enemy combatants fighting in a cyberwar would not be operating openly under the flag of a particular country or with a formal war declaration; they would instead likely operate as proxies from various geographic territories from a position of deniability. They may, or may not be supported, directly or indirectly, by a government body. By Schneier's definition, the continuing war against terrorists may not really be a war, after all, al-Qaida is not a nation-state and we're fighting a loose federation of groups and individuals who operate outside of the law in sovereign territories.

Look back over the litany of security disclosures over the past year and you see a pattern emerge: sophisticated, disruptive and surreptitious events that cannot be attributed to a specific individual, group, government or entity. Just a hazy and nebulous series of events that can't be officially attributed or blamed on any one in particular. The year kicked off with the first substantial disclosures regarding state-sponsored hacks against Google and other American targets and is closing out with WikiLeaks and Stuxnet, a clever piece of malware targeting industrial control systems that eats its way through power and energy control systems around the world.

It's time we come to grips with the fact that America's government agencies and industry are under a near-constant barrage of attacks that are part of a bigger picture: that the United States is being targeted on a massive scale by a loosely federated group of nation-states, individuals and groups dedicated to violating our laws and principles. The sooner we accept and acknowledge this position, the better prepared we'll be to fix the problem. It may not look like a traditional military conflict, but the goal is the same: to damage the United States.

The fact that the United States is exploring all options, in the words of Attorney General Eric Holder, in the face of the WikiLeaks disclosures seems to refute Schneier's position. In the WikiLeaks case, a fringe group led primarily by foreign nationals operating abroad is illegally obtaining, reviewing and disseminating American intelligence information with the stated intent of hurting the United States (WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange himself made this declaration). That not only meets the definition of aggressive, hostile and war-like activity, but squarely targets America's diplomatic positions and intelligence interests while inflicting collateral damage against our financial institutions and service providers who cut-off their relationship with WikiLeaks. This, folks, is war.

Eric M. Fiterman is a former FBI special agent and founder of Methodvue, a consultancy that provides cybersecurity and computer forensics services to the federal government and private businesses.

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