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
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT