Collision of Physical and Digital Defenses

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Rafal Los


Collision of Physical and Digital Defenses - Pentagon Says Physical Response to Cyber Threat Possible

"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent" - Isaac Asimov

While there have been mixed reviews of the Pentagon's ability to defend the United States public & private sectors from attack by foreign state-sponsored cyber attack, there has been an uptick of rhetoric lately that a physical military response won't be ruled out in the case of such an attack.

When warranted, we will respond to hostile attacks in cyberspace as we would to any other threat to our country,” the report said. “We reserve the right to use all necessary means — diplomatic, informational, military and economic — to defend our nation, our allies, our partners and our interests.” (

There are serious issues with cyber warfare, and defending against Internet-borne attacks...

For example:

  • Should the government be attempting to defend private sector businesses? Is so... how, and to what extent?
  • How can attribution be certain, and verified so as not to get drawn into a conflict against another nation by a 3rd party?
  • What is the appropriate, metered response against a cyber attack?
  • Where do you physically strike to stop a serious cyber attack from a foreign state?

In a story that sounds like it could only come from a James Bond movie - we can imagine a 3rd party such as a terrorist organization hacking into poorly secured systems in a nation such as China and using their systems to attack US infrastructure... causing severe enough damage to cause a US physical military response... but where does the US strike? 

How can we be 100% sure that it is China attacking us, and not someone else masquerading?

Perhaps even more interesting is the question of how far reaching should the US Department of Defense strategies be?  In order to protect the virtual US borders... wait, what are we talking about here? 

Of course there are no cyber-borders as connectivity becomes a great mesh with Internet connectivity coming through private industry mainly. 

The interesting thing that worries me, and many of you, is concepts like the "Internet kill switch" where the United States government would necessitate the ability to terminate all Internet connectivity outside our borders (or otherwise) in case of a cyber attack or other event. 

These are very complex issues that we're only beginning to understand, and which cause clashes of public policy versus the need for national security.

In the physical world, we can at least determine where an attack originates (even if it can be initiated by a 3rd party) whereas in the Internet world this isn't so simple. 

With all the SCADA hacking lately we have to let reason guide us, and emphasize temperance while we develop our own defensive capability in the connected digital age.  It's too easy to just say "strike the attacker" but much harder when that attacker is a virtual ghost in the fabric of cyber-space.

While the Pentagon may say that they're ready to deal out a physical attack in the case of a cyber threat - the realities of the intertwined physical and digital world are much, much more complex.

Cross-posted from Following the White Rabbit

Possibly Related Articles:
SCADA Military DoD Cyberwar Attacks Pentagon Cyber Defense Attribution
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