Efforts to establish “norms of behavior” got a promising start, but are now falling apart. No one can even agree on when an act of aggression in cyberspace amounts to an act of war. The Pentagon, in its first nuclear strategy review since President Trump took office, is even proposing to use the threat of unleashing nuclear weapons against a country or group that delivered a devastating cyberattack against the critical infrastructure of the United States or its allies. But that doesn’t help with the problem of everyday attacks.
The most talented state sponsors of attacks — mostly Russia, China, Iran and North Korea — have carefully calibrated their operations in cyberspace to achieve their strategic aims while avoiding a real shooting war. So far they have succeeded. While there have been indictments of Iranian and Chinese hackers in major strikes on the United States, they have never seen the inside of an American courtroom.
North Korea has been a case study in how a nation learns to make use of its cyberweapons for disruption, revenge or profit, without fear of serious retaliation. It has learned how to station hackers around the world — in China, Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere — and has gotten away with bolder and bolder attacks, from Wannacry to its raid on Bangladesh’s central bank, which nearly resulted in the theft of a billion dollars. (The transfers were halted after $81 million had passed through the Swift system, the international clearinghouse for transactions, after someone at the New York Fed discovered a spelling error — the word “fandation” for “foundation” — and stopped the heist. )
As James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it recently, “North Korea is both cautious and cunning in its use of force, including cyberattack.” But he added: “The North has been successful only against poorly protected targets, of which there are many, suggesting that there is a relatively low ceiling for its cyberattack capabilities.”
In fact, the explosion of state-sponsored, sophisticated cyberattacks over the past seven or eight years has been fueled, in large part, by the expansion of poorly protected targets. Yes, banks and major utilities have, for the large part, tightened their defenses, and tens of billions of dollars have been made by companies promising all kinds of cyber protections, from the most basic programs loaded on your laptop to sophisticated systems designed to anticipate future action, or watch for variations in the normal behavior of users.
But none of that has prevented cyberspace from becoming what President Barack Obama termed the “Wild, Wild West,” a territory of anarchy, where adversaries take free shots at one another. In the past five years, these attacks have become the cheapest way for nations to undercut one another in the name of bigger strategic goals.
Yet the world has been unable to decide what constitutes fair game, and what should be off limits. For years officials talked about their fear of a “cyber Pearl Harbor,” a devastating strike against the power grid that would turn out the lights from Boston to Washington, or London to Rome. That has not happened, save for limited strikes in Ukraine, widely attributed to Russian hackers, that seemed intended to send a message that they could attack critical infrastructure at any time. Countries have sensed what would happen if they went too far.
Instead, cyberattacks have taken a far more subtle turn. The Russian-led attacks on the 2016 American election — and similar efforts in France and Germany last year — are prime examples. While United Nations experts had been struggling to come up with “norms of behavior” in cyberspace, a consensus about what was off-limits — like attacks on power grids or safety systems, for example — few were thinking about the use of the technology to influence elections.
In fact, the election systems in the United States — the foundation of American democracy — were never on the list of “critical infrastructure” until Mr. Obama’s Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, added them in the last days of the administration. By then it was too late.
Infrastructure is only part of the problem. The evidence that has poured out of the United States after more than a year of congressional investigations has left no doubt that Russian hackers — working largely on behalf of two of Moscow’s spy services, the SVR and the GRU — did far more than use cyber tools to break into the Democratic National Committee and the accounts of key players in Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
The sophisticated use of “bots” to target key demographic groups with Twitter messages, Facebook ads and just ordinary-looking social media exchanges made it clear that we have entered a new world, in which states marry some of the oldest propaganda techniques with the newest ways to disseminate a divisive message.
Yet thinking about how to regulate that kind of activity is tying the West in knots. President Emmanuel Macron in France is proposing that government authorities be able to take down “fake news” during elections, declaring in his New Year’s speech that “if we want to protect liberal democracies, we must be strong and have clear rules.”
Yet those rules clearly could not survive in the United States, where First Amendment protections would prohibit the government from stepping in and declaring what is fake and what is not.
President Trump’s own declarations about what constitutes “fake news” — including articles about the Russian election activity — underscore the dangers of putting that power into government hands.
There are other complications. After the election hacks in the United States, many called for “real identities” on the internet, so the world would know exactly who is tweeting or posting. Sensible as it may sound, it would also be a boon to the Russians, the Chinese and any authoritarian government looking to crack down on dissent. In short, the best way to solve the problem of election meddling and anonymous attacks would be a dictator’s dream.
There have been a few successes in setting norms of behavior, particularly when it comes to banning child pornography or cracking down on intellectual property theft. But those are the easiest issues on which to agree.
The United States, for example, would never support rules that banned espionage. And what about rules prohibiting the placement of “implants” in foreign computer networks, so that in the future they could monitor activity or plant malware to bring a network down?
American and European officials raise the alarm whenever they find such implants in their electrical grids. But they also quietly place them in hundreds of thousands of foreign networks. That is how Presidents Bush and Obama got inside Iran’s nuclear enrichment site at Natanz, with the Stuxnet code.
It is a power that the United States and its allies, have no intention of giving up.