Menus Subscribe Search

‘Cyberwarfare’ Will Blur the Edges of War

• October 20, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Particularly if NATO recognizes cyber-attacks as a trigger to start shooting.

The question first came up when Estonian government servers went down in 2007, under a “denial-of-service” attack that seemed — but was never proven — to come officially from Russia. Estonia was a new member of NATO and felt bullied by its former Soviet big brother.

But the question was awkward, and it came up again when Georgian servers went down just before Russian tanks invaded a Georgian province in 2008. (Georgia also wants NATO membership as a shield against Russia.) Were cyber-attacks warfare, and should they trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which provides for collective self-defense? Should the U.S. and Europe consider launching ships and planes against Moscow if servers go down again in some new NATO capital, somewhere on the old Soviet frontier?

A group of experts assembled by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright suggested to NATO last spring that cyberwarfare had emerged as a major concern for the alliance — one of three modes of attack its members had to worry about.

“The most probable threats to Allies in the coming decade are unconventional,” reads the Albright Group’s report. “Three in particular stand out,” including a missile attack, a terrorist attack and “cyber assaults of varying degrees of severity.”

So NATO will consider at its annual summit in Lisbon next month whether — or how — to classify cyber-assaults as violent provocations for the whole alliance.

The report acknowledges that the new century has introduced a new level of ambiguity to the art of war. “There is, of course, nothing ambiguous about a cross border military assault by the combined armed forces of a hostile country,” the Albright report says. “However, there may well be doubts about whether an unconventional danger — such as a cyber attack or evidence that terrorists are planning a strike — triggers the collective defense mechanisms of Article 5.”

Doubts include: where a cyber-assault may have originated, who ordered it, and how severe the damage has to be for Article 5 to be invoked. Cyberwarfare, in other words, brings a fresh element of politics into Allied defense, and it’s not clear at all to powers like Russia that NATO will swing into action for the sake of a small member like Estonia.

The most recent notable act of computer warfare, the so-called Stuxnet worm, may or may not have been aimed at Iran by Israel, Germany, or the United States, and vagueness about the worm’s origins have spared Iran the public pressure to start a shooting war with the West.

By now it’s clear that Russian hackers were behind the Estonian attacks, though who directed them is still a mystery. The Kremlin denies having control over its peskily patriotic computer scientists — which didn’t keep a Russian colonel from observing that the attacks had failed to rouse any major NATO response. “These attacks have been quite successful,” said Col. Anatoly Tsyganok told Gazeta in 2008, “and today the alliance has nothing to oppose Russia’s virtual attacks.”

After November, it will. But then the world will have entered a strange new era. A “cyber-attack” will presumably have to damage far more than some Estonian government servers to trigger a NATO response, but the threshold will be on a sliding scale, and the definition of war itself may blur.

“NATO will face a lot of problems if cyber attacks are inserted into Article 5,” Alex Neill, from the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense think tank, told Deutsche Welle earlier this month. “… There has been a concerted effort by some nations [like Germany and the United States] to pursue covert offensive cyber capabilities, and these could be harnessed by NATO as part of a joint response, although some nations may not want to show the level of their own capability, even to their allies.”

If a cyber-assault can trigger a shooting war, then it also has to be mentioned that NATO will have a murky political mechanism to create false-flag pretexts for war — rather like the Gulf of Tonkin attacks that led, legally, to the American war against North Vietnam.

“If something happens, you can blame anything on anybody,” is how journalist Webster Tarpley described it in an interview with Russia Today. Normally, I wouldn’t invoke Tarpley because of his allegiances to Lyndon LaRouche, but on this topic he states the obvious. “If we have a crash in the D.C. Metro, what to do? Blame a hacker in Russia, or China, or Sudan, and who in the world is gonna be able to say no?”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow for journalism in Germany, and The Economist named his surf travelogue, "Sweetness and Blood," a book of the year in 2010. His first novel, "Too Much of Nothing," was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003, and he’s written about politics and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and Spiegel Online in Berlin, where he serves as editor-at-large.

More From Michael Scott Moore

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



Follow us


Subscribe Now

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.