Skip to main content

Cyber arms control? Forget about it

By Christopher Bronk and Dan Wallach, Special to CNN
March 26, 2013 -- Updated 1243 GMT (2043 HKT)
Monitors display the hacked Greek ministry of justice website on February 3, 2012.
Monitors display the hacked Greek ministry of justice website on February 3, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Christopher Bronk, Dan Wallach: Cyber arms control is unlikely to happen soon
  • Bronk, Wallach: Cyberattacks can be crafted and launched by individuals, groups
  • They say nations don't even have to be involved for an attack to have impact
  • Bronk, Wallach: It's hard to get rid of cyberattacks, but they can be curbed with diplomacy

Editor's note: Christopher Bronk and Dan Wallach teach and research computer security issues at Rice University.

(CNN) -- With the advent of "cyberwar," a poorly defined term that seems to be used as a catch-all phrase for all manners of computer-related attacks, it's natural to ask about cyber arms control. Richard Clarke, former cybersecurity adviser to President Obama, has advocated along with others for cyber arms control or new legal rules for war in cyberspace.

If governments have the ability to build the tools of cyberwarfare, then presumably, they can regulate and control them. But realistically, it's unlikely that cyber arms control will happen anytime soon.

When we think of arms control, we consider the efforts of the Cold War, which dramatically cut the number of nuclear weapons and other strategic armaments, from the period of detente to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Arms control works fairly well for managing the arsenals of weapons that are large and complex.

Christopher Bronk
Christopher Bronk

However, cyberweapons are of a different league. All you need is training in computer software engineering and some talent. On the Internet, there is readily available literature on coding and hacking, and of course, a plethora of open source tools. Just as easy as it is to be an effective cyberdefender, you can learn to be an effective offensive cyber-operator.

Dan Wallach
Dan Wallach

Cyber attacks can be crafted and used by individuals or groups. Importantly, they can make impact even without significant involvement from a nation.

For example, the Anonymous hacker group is able to disrupt major corporations and even countries with its campaigns for transparency. Furthermore, when Anonymous is unable to disrupt a target, it typically resorts to overtaking websites with massive denial of service attacks.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Despite the role of nonstate players, it is the brinkmanship between countries in cyberspace that make the big headlines.

Mandiant, a cybersecurity company, reported a series of cyber attacks on U.S. companies that was traced to China's People's Liberation Army unit 61398 based in Shanghai. One of the lessons in the analysis is how remarkably effective the Chinese attackers were despite a stunning lack of sophistication and sloppiness in their tradecraft.

In contrast, our biggest and most innovative corporations have developed and deployed sophisticated defense systems that still seem to be regularly breached, despite the efforts of their comically inept adversaries. If the Chinese PLA ever gets its act together, we're in real trouble.

Meet South Korea's 'cyber warriors'

How might this get worse? We already know that cyber-espionage can harm companies. The risks of cybersabotage can be worse.

For example, industrial control systems are largely computer controlled and they can be reached in some cases from the Internet. Future terrorist organizations could cause spectacular physical and economic damage to our refineries, power plants, water systems, pipelines and other important systems without leaving a marked trail or suffering significant personal risk.

In the wake of the Stuxnet attacks on Iran's uranium-refinement centrifuges or the Shamoon attack on Saudi Aramco's computers, cybersabotage can no longer be considered theoretical. It is happening now.

It's not difficult to imagine a future in which cyber attacks become more frequent or serious. In such a world, there will be a need for diplomacy and norm-setting among the international community.

But if we ever wanted to consider treaties on cyber disarmament, or regulations on the use of hacking tools by those wishing to do more than simply spy or steal, we would become immediately stymied by how to enforce the rules.

Barring a radical change in the technological playing field, there will never be an effective cyber equivalent of the International Atomic Energy Agency despite all the aspirations of organizations like the International Telecommunications Union to serve such a function. The very idea that an international organization could enforce rules on the misuse of computers is ludicrous.

The problem of cyber arms control is akin to the greatest arms control failure of the Cold War, which still persists: the mass distribution of the most produced firearm in human history, the Kalashnikov AK-47.

According to the World Bank, as many as 100 million of these brutally simple weapons are scattered across the globe (roughly one for every 70 people on the planet, and that excludes the millions of Western military rifles out there, too). From every major trouble spot, we see footage of Kalashnikov-wielding soldiers, terrorists and rebels.

Global attempts to sweep up such weapons, as well as their bigger and more volatile relatives -- rocket-propelled grenades -- have been mostly ineffective. The U.N. has worked for more than a decade on an Arms Trade Treaty designed to limit the illicit trade of such weapons, but a final draft of the treaty is stalled.

For better or for worse, the Internet has become one more field upon which the game of nations is played.

Just as the Internet can be used for sharing information and enabling commerce, it can also be used to steal secrets and to cause damage. In the short term, we might see private industry adopt defensive practices. In the long term, while we may never be able to eliminate electronic espionage, we may be able to reduce its reach through vigilance and diplomacy. As for cyber arms control, forget about it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher Bronk and Dan Wallach.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 13, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
A Scottish vote for independence next week could trigger wave of separatist tension in Europe, says Frida Ghitis.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2212 GMT (0612 HKT)
You couldn't call him a "Bond villain" in the grand context of Dr. No or Auric Goldfinger. They were twisted visionaries of apocalypse whose ideas were to be played out at humanity's expense.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1705 GMT (0105 HKT)
As a Latina activist I was hurt to hear the President would delay executive action to keep undocumented immigrants with no criminal record from getting deported.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT)
Stevan Weine says the key is to stop young people from acquiring radicalized beliefs in the first place.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
US Currency is seen in this January 30, 2001 image. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Lisa Gilbert says a million people have asked the SEC to make corporations disclose political contributions.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 0455 GMT (1255 HKT)
Christi Paul says unless you've walked in an abused woman's shoes, don't judge her, help her get answers to the right questions: Why does he get to hit her? And why does nobody do anything to stop him?
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1932 GMT (0332 HKT)
Mel Robbins says several other NFL players arrested recently in domestic violence are back on the field. Roger Goodell has shown he is clueless on abuse. He must go.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says President Obama has a remarkable opportunity Wednesday night to mobilize support for a coalition against ISIS.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 0041 GMT (0841 HKT)
The Texas senator says Obama should seek congressional authorization for a major bombing campaign vs. ISIS.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT