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.