This past week, it was reported that the Obama administration considered using cyber warfare – computer viruses, worms, Trojans – to attack the Syrian government's command and control structures. The deployment of cyber warfare technology is situated in a new and largely untested field, a virtual way to create physical damage, and one that mystifies the realities of conflict and its human costs. US budget appropriations related to the militarization of cyberspace and cyber security now total in the billions.
Cyber weapons aren't regulated in any conventional way. When deployed as a weapon of choice by major nation states, they can circumvent legal controls and easily avoid the kind of public outcry expressed in the wake of drone strikes and similar extraterritorial police actions by the US and its allies. The STUXNET worm, arguably the most sophisticated swath of malicious code ever created, and the most striking example of a coordinated cyber attack to date, was responsible for sabotaging an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility in 2010. STUXNET is widely believed to be the creation of US and Israeli programmers. It was rumored to be an alternative to an airstrike, a more palatable way to accomplish foreign policy goals where traditional military action was politically unfeasible.
The US military already has a joint cyber command. When in the hands of activists or anti-government protestors, cyberwarfare tactics sometimes facilitate political action and awareness. Or, in the case of the Syrian government and its loyal Syrian Electronic Army, funded in part by American and European tech companies, they have the power to censor opposition voices and collect their identities on social media for violent reprisals.
What does it mean for the rest of us? Cyber warfare is insidious because it is still largely perceived as something other than war, lacking all the spectacular elements of conventional military force but still bearing the potential to damage major resources and infrastructure. Full scale usage of cyber weapons raises several ethical questions. The Israeli Defense College seems to think so too, as does The National Science Foundation, which offered Michigan professor a grant for research toward a set of rules and norms for cyberwarfare. How far is too far? Would a cyber attack be viewed as a violation of sovereignty in the same way a drone strike is? Does the creation and proliferation of cyber weapons increase the ease with which US and allied powers carry out illegal international police operations?
Jason Huettner is a freelance writer in New York. He received his B.A. from Hunter College in 2010 in English Language, Literature, and Criticism. His areas of interest include military science, postcoloniality, and gender studies.