The world hasn't yet seen examples of true cyberwar, although governments around the world need to prepare for it, an expert in cybersecurity law from Estonia said Monday.
Many people have called the 2007 attacks on Estonian banks, media outlets and government ministries an early example of cyberwar, but using a legal definition, they were not, said Eneken Tikk, head of the legal and policy branch of the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia. She defined cyberwar as an attack that would cause the same type of destruction as the traditional military, with military force as an appropriate response.
"That means a smoking hole in the ground," said Tikk, speaking at cybersecurity vendor ArcSight's Protect '10 conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
Tikk found some disagreement from two other cybersecurity experts speaking during the same session. While Tikk and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) declined to define the attacks in Estonia as cyberwar, many other people saw the coordinated effort that way, said Prescott Winter, CTO for ArcSight's public sector division and a former CIO and CTO at the U.S. National Security Agency.
"If we're not at cyberwar yet, you've got me really nervous," added Blair Linville, vice president of enterprise IT at casino operator Harrah's Entertainment. "We certainly feel under attack every day, out in industry."
Tikk and Winter both called for governments and companies to better prepare for coordinated attacks, whether they come from nations or criminal groups. But preparing for cyberwar, in particular, is difficult because there's little precedence, Winter said. Governments know how to negotiate treaties and engage in diplomacy to head off conventional wars, but no one really knows how a confrontation between nations would escalate into a cyberwar, he said.
"There's a whole dance that nations go through" before a traditional war, and diplomacy can often avert conflict, Winter said. "That doesn't really exist yet in the cyberdomain."
Nations don't yet have rules of engagement for cyberwar, including how they might use private-sector networks to reroute traffic and shut down attacks, he said. "There's a lot of work to be done, and we need to get started," Winter added. "We're sitting right on the edge of a very significant problem here."
Tikk also called for governments to develop cyberwar policies. One way to better deal with cyberwar or other coordinated attacks is cooperation between nations, with governments helping each other during attacks, she said.
Many legal tools for dealing with coordinated attacks already exist, she added, but nations need to develop the policies to allow countermeasures such as mutual aid agreements and national cybersecurity policies, she said. "We spend a lot of time focusing on what we cannot do instead of what we can do," she added.
One audience member asked whether governments should take more steps to track online behavior. In the U.S., there are limits on the data the government can keep, and a more formal tracking effort would take some major changes in law, Winter said.
Another audience member asked if new cybersecurity regulations are necessary, with Internet service providers held partly responsible for the traffic that comes over their networks. Tikk suggested it was time for the U.S. to reexamine laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that exempted ISPs from lawsuits involving traffic carried on their networks. ISPs could serve as a first line of defense from cyberattacks if they were allowed to filter content, although that idea would meet stiff resistance, she said.
Winter pointed to an effort in Australia, where ISPs will begin to voluntarily filter Web content by late this year, after a series of government filtering proposals stalled. The Australian code of practice, developed by the Internet Industry Association there, would allow ISPs to cut off access to Web users who refuse to take action to secure their computers, he said.
It will be "interesting" to see how effective the filtering system is against cyberattacks, Winter said.
The U.S. may also need to reexamine its largely hands-off regulatory approach to the Internet, in the name of cybersafety, Winter added. "The Internet sort of grew up here as the Wild West," he said. "Anybody mentions the R word, regulation associated with the Internet here, and the noise levels become positively deafening. We may just have to accept some regulation if we want to have an Internet that is stable, reliable and resilient."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is email@example.com.