Russian Cyber-War Attack on Georgia Spurs Defense Ideas for U.S and Allies     Print
Monday, 25 August 2008

In Georgia, reports indicate that organized cyber-warfare attacks continue against key government websites - attacks that appear to be coming from organized groups in Russia.

Suspicions that these attacks - like an even larger cyber-assault last year on Estonia - are offensive tactics orchestrated and used by the Russian government and have triggered fresh thinking in the U.S. and European capitals about what strategy might help deter such cyber-aggression in the future.

“Cyber-attack by a nation is very different from cyber-attack by a hacker,” says Admiral Bill Owens, a specialist about the threat. He told the Financial Times that the risks for major nations are rising to the point where it may be time to consider a defensive doctrine similar to “mutually assured destruction.” That was the name for a balance of nuclear weapons between the superpowers during the cold war that convinced both sides that it would be self-destructive to launch a nuclear attack.

Similarly, Owens said, diplomats might take another page from cold war arms-control and urge countries to pledge “no first use” of cyber-war - along the lines of the “no first use” pledges about nuclear weapons.

Although Georgia does not have enough web infrastructures to be very vulnerable in this area, the organized hacking it sustained comes against a background of reported attacks on government facilities in the U.S., France, Britain and Germany that were apparently probes of Western defenses or espionage to glean secret information. Both Russia and China have specialized military units that specialize in cyber-warfare, according to Western specialists. NATO is developing similar expertise.

Evoking the possibility of Western retaliation against attacks masterminded by another government, Owens said “I think that the U.S. and China have an ability to shut down each other’s societies on the internet today.”

This latest cyber-attack has spurred Europe and the U.S. to seek policy clarifications, new technical ripostes and closer cooperation, including via NATO. Michael Chertoff, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, outlining plans for a “Manhattan project” for IT-security, warned recently that “a big and successful attack would have cascading effects across the country and across the world”.

Though there are similarities in both attacks there are also key differences between Estonia and Georgia specialists say. This time the hackers are targeting specific government websites such as the president’s, the parliament’s and the foreign ministry’s. In fact, web traffic is being redirected to sites in Russia and Turkey that could be the first step towards controlling Georgia’s incoming and outgoing high-level communications. That is the kind of control Russia would need to help oust President Mikheil Saakasvili.