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Digital Inheritance
Cover Stories Series 2011> Digital Inheritance
UPDATED: June 27, 2011 NO. 26 JUNE 30, 2011
Security and Insecurity in Cyberspace
U.S. strategies open the door to cyber warfare

APPEALING FOR SECURITY: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivers a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 4. Gates outlined new doctrine on cyber warfare (XINHUA/AFP)

Cyber supremacy

The obvious reason for the United States' accelerated cyber war preparation is to ensure its cyber security. After more than a decade of rapid development, information networks used by computers, cellphones and just about any electronic device have become an indispensible part of people's lives.

Cyber security threats have also been on the rise, becoming not just an American, but a global problem. Individual hacker attacks as well as larger-scale cyber attacks and cyber terrorism are increasing in frequency. Even the websites of the U.S. Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency have suffered cyber attacks. By building its cyber-based combat power, the United States aims to deter cyber attacks.

What's more, the United States also aspires to ensure a leadership role in cyberspace. As the founding nation of the Internet, it has an absolute advantage in cyberspace. From the computer chip to the operating system and from the root server to domain name management, the United States dominates almost all aspects of the Internet. This advantage has become greater with the popularization of social networks and mobile smart terminals in recent years.

To guarantee this role, the United States must fulfill two tasks: creating a "virtual army" and defining the rules of cyberspace. Initiatives such as setting up the U.S. Cyber Command, establishing ground rules for cyber war, and developing weapons for cyber warfare, have strengthened the U.S. supremacy in cyberspace.

The high cost-effectiveness of cyber war is another incentive to spur development in this new arena for fighting. Compared to other modes of warfare, cyber war is cost-effective, requiring few men and materials, but yielding massive destructive effects. The damage from a successful cyber attack is no less destructive than a missile attack or airstrike, but the difference is that a cyber attack may cost between $300 and $50,000, while a conventional attack, requiring men, machinery and munitions, can easily reach into the millions of dollars.

Suspicious motives

As the United States officially makes cyber warfare a new form of war, it needs to take into account the impact it will have on mankind. After nuclear weapons were developed and became the cornerstones of many nations' arsenals, they cast a shadow of terror on the entire world. Cyber weapons and their after-effects will have as great an impact on the ways wars are fought and the current global security situation as nuclear weapons did when they first appeared 70 years ago.

Moreover, U.S. cyber warfare strategies will inevitably cause other countries to increase their cyber weapons, creating an arms race in cyberspace. Given users' dependence on information networks and the interconnection of these networks, a cyberspace arms race will produce disastrous results.

The actions of the United States have already caused a chain reaction. South Korea followed its ally, establishing its own cyber command. Already, more than 150 countries have set up specialized agencies for cyber weapons development.

Even with strategies in place, it will remain difficult to determine whether a cyber attack has come from an individual or a state agency. Though the state where the attack originates can be tracked and the exact IP address found, it is impossible to find out who, individually, perpetrated the attack.

The United States appeals to cyber war to ensure its cyber security, but as it turns out, cyber weapons can only lead to greater insecurity and instability. Cyberspace is an important part of the global community. To build cyber security, the world must implement certain rules, the first rule being international cooperation. As cyberspace goes beyond national boundaries, the act of a single state against an attacker just will not work.

To deal with the challenge that hackers, cyber terrorists and other non-state actors pose to nations and cyberspace, there should be a mechanism for the international community to solve cyber security problems. Also, countries involved in cyber security must tiptoe around cyberspace militarization. Measures that militarize cyberspace and try to conquer violence with violence will result in greater insecurity. In the long run, extending cyber warfare will only make a country as vulnerable as its enemies.

The author is an assistant research fellow with the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Studies

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