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Pentagon Declares Cyber Hacks Acts of War

May 31, 2011

The decision would allow the US to retaliate against cyber attacks using military force.

Picture 114 Pentagon Declares Cyber Hacks Acts of War

It’s been a big year for information. The arrival of Wikileaks last summer seemed to initiate a flood of news stories about the power of information and its refusal to behave.

Recently, the information news always seemed to center on hackers. First there was Anonymous, who sought to exact revenge on Visa and Amazon’s part in cutting off funds to Wikileaks. Anonymous seemed to inspire a generation of young hacking geniuses who successfully infiltrated Sony, Lockheed Martin, and recently even PBS, resulting alternately in both simple taunts on corporate websites and serious security breaches of consumers’ credit card information.

But the information story with the most serious real-world impact—and implications for the future—was the Stuxnet virus attack on Iran. US intelligence, in cooperation with Israeli intelligence and the German technology Siemens, launched a cyber hack on the computer infrastructure controlling Iran’s nuclear enrichment plants, destroying equipment and setting back that country’s ability to produce nuclear weapons potentially by years.

Likely in response to information’s newfound power on the world stage, the Wall Street Journal today reports that the Pentagon recently decided on a strategy for dealing with potential cyber attacks. “The Pentagon has concluded that computer sabotage coming from another country can constitute an act of war, a finding that for the first time opens the door for the U.S. to respond using traditional military force.”

The decision that information attacks can now be met with military might is a predictably American response—a nod to the Cold War mentality that the threat of military annihilation keeps the peace like no other tool.

But it also misses the point, as is evidenced in the US’s own Stuxnet attack on Iran. As a young generation of hacker geniuses grows more advanced and information engineering becomes more sophisticated, the ability to neutralize an enemy’s military will become one of its most potent applications.

Of the new cyber-attack strategy, an unnamed military official tells the Journal “If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks.”

But, similar to our Stuxnet attack, wouldn’t the likely target of foreign hackers be our defense operation itself? As cyber hacking grows more precise and advanced, won’t it come to substitute for military attacks? As it does, won’t it largely render irrelevant the threat of military response? Isn’t that the whole point?

For now, the Pentagon’s declaration pertains only to foreign information attacks deemed acts of war. But it’s a slippery slope. As information and military co-mingle, civilian hackers better watch out, lest they find their apartments firebombed after hacking the PBS website.

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