December 14, 2009


By Abu Bakar Munir

Much of the debate on cyber war is happening behind closed doors. However, recently at the ITU’s Telecom World 2009 in October, the UN telecommunication agency chief openly reminded the international community that the next world war could take place in cyberspace. He said, “The next world war could happen in cyberspace and that would be a catastrophe. We have to make sure that all countries understand that in that war, there is no such thing as a superpower. Loss of vital networks would quickly cripple any nation, and none is immune to cyberattack”.

Cyber warfare poses new challenges in the field of cyber security. A large majority of identified cyber attacks have been the work of individuals acting alone or in groups, independently or possibly on behalf of a government or intelligence service, or of industrial or private economic interest groups. The United Nations Institute of Research and Training (UNITAR) asserts that not only will cyber-war be a force in future warfare, it may also turn out to be the great equalizer for nations attacking adversaries with superior conventional military power. Most nations lack the resources to build a military machine and may use information technologies to overcome their battlefield inferiority.

Gadi Evron, a cyber-crime expert, and a recognized leader in Internet security, commented that to most critics, and particularly state officials and policy makers, the possibility that the Internet could one day suddenly disappear is no more than a mere speculation, a highly improbable concept. He argues that the events that took place in Estonia proved everyone wrong and that on that Estonia fell victim to the first ever, real Internet war.

Estonia and Georgia were attacked in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Some observers reckoned that the onslaught on Estonia was of a sophistication not seen before. Some believe that such efforts exceed the skills of individual activists or even organized crime as they require a co-operation of a state and a large telecom company. As stated by the European Security Defence Assembly, “These events triggered renewed public interest in an area that hitherto had been the preserve of specialists, both civil and military. The once hypothetical possibility of a cyber assault or even cyber warfare against individual countries is now a reality.” The attack on Estonia is a conflict frequently referred to as the “Cyber War 1”. The second war is, perhaps, the attack on Georgia. Who will be next?

Estonia is a member of both NATO and the European Union. This raises the question of whether, if a member state of two powerful organizations in the world can suffer an attack of this kind, all other states might in future fall victim to similar types of actions on various scales. Many countries of the world have realised the importance of cyber security. They recognised that what happened in Estonia is possible to take place in other countries. The 2008 U.K Cabinet Office report states that no state threatens the United Kingdom directly. However, according to the report, “the overall international security landscape has become more complex and unpredictable, and although the probability remains very low, over the longer term we cannot rule out a possible re-emergence of a major state-led threat to the United Kingdom. That could come about through…or other forms of threats which render distance irrelevant, for example state-sponsored cyber-attack”.

The United States viewed the attacked on the Twin Towers in 2001 as an act of war and launched the global war against terrorism and invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Should cyber attacks be treated as acts of war? Do the cyber attacks against Estonia and Georgia constitute as the “use of force” and an “armed attack” under the United Nations Charter? If it can be established and proved that the attacks on Estonia and Georgia received support from the Russian Government, would this justify the countries the right of self-defense under the Charter? Or, should the international community view the attacks as the mere criminal acts for the criminal justice system to address?

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