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War, redefined

Even before Russian troops arrived, Georgian government websites were under cyber attack.

August 17, 2008

Among the more disturbing aspects of Russia's invasion of Georgia is that it was accompanied by a wave of cyber attacks on Georgian government websites. The combination of electronic and physical punches illuminated how ill-prepared the world is for this new kind of warfare.

Analysts say the online attacks, which appear to have begun well before Russian tanks rolled in, resembled the work of garden-variety cyber pranksters. Georgian government websites were overwhelmed with swarms of data, and some were defaced by hackers. There was no clear proof of Russian military involvement (investigators have reportedly traced some of the data to Russian servers tied to organized-crime groups), so the perpetrators may have been nationalists. Still, the timing suggests that even if the responsible parties weren't in uniform, they coordinated their moves with the Russian military.

Georgia protested, but it had no formal avenue to appeal for help. International treaties and defense pacts don't clearly obligate anyone to respond to cyber attacks, even when the victim is an ally. That's true in part because of the difficulty in determining who's perpetrating the assaults, which often are conducted by automated global “botnets” of computers compromised without the owners' knowledge. Nor do international agreements define what constitutes a cyber war crime. In that sense, cyber warfare looks a lot like terrorism: There are no civilians, only casualties.

The U.S. government has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into improving its cyber defense capabilities since 9/11, as well as its capacity to launch online attacks. Its ability to detect and thwart assaults on governmental sites is much more sophisticated than Georgia's. Yet security experts say there's an enormous amount of work still to be done to reduce the vulnerability of the many agencies, businesses and homes that are electronically connected.

More fundamentally, the Internet was not designed to be secure. Its architecture was developed by a relatively small group of researchers who knew and trusted one another. They didn't envision the Net becoming intertwined with commerce, manufacturing and the power grid, all of which are now to some degree vulnerable to cyber warriors. The ultimate solution is to redesign the Net, striking a better balance between security and the free flow of information. In the meantime, Georgia's experience serves as a warning to Internet users that war has been redefined to the detriment of civilians everywhere.

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