A weapon we can’t control

June 27, 2012 | Source: New York Times

(Credit: Makki98/Wikimedia Commons)

The decision by the United States and Israel to develop and then deploy the Stuxnet computer worm against an Iranian nuclear facility late in George W. Bush’s presidency marked a significant and dangerous turning point in the gradual militarization of the Internet, says Misha Glenny, a visiting professor at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, and the author of DarkMarket: Cyberthieves, Cybercops and You.

Washington has begun to cross the Rubicon. If it continues, contemporary warfare will change fundamentally as we move into hazardous and uncharted territory.

Stuxnet has effectively fired the starting gun in a new arms race that is very likely to lead to the spread of similar and still more powerful offensive cyberweaponry across the Internet. Unlike nuclear or chemical weapons, however, countries are developing cyberweapons outside any regulatory framework.

This is one of the frightening dangers of an uncontrolled arms race in cyberspace; once released, virus developers generally lose control of their inventions, which will inevitably seek out and attack the networks of innocent parties. Moreover, all countries that possess an offensive cyber capability will be tempted to use it now that the first shot has been fired.

Flame circulated on the Web for at least four years and evaded detection by the big antivirus operators like McAfee, Symantec, Kaspersky Labs and F-Secure — companies that are vital to ensuring that law-abiding consumers can go about their business on the Web unmolested by the army of malware writers, who release nasty computer code onto the Internet to steal our money, data, intellectual property or identities. But senior industry figures have now expressed deep worries about the state-sponsored release of the most potent malware ever seen.

The United States must now consider entering into discussions, anathema though they may be, with the world’s major powers about the rules governing the Internet as a military domain.

Any agreement should regulate only military uses of the Internet and should specifically avoid any clauses that might affect private or commercial use of the Web. Nobody can halt the worldwide rush to create cyberweapons, but a treaty could prevent their deployment in peacetime and allow for a collective response to countries or organizations that violate it.

Technical superiority is not written in stone, and the United States is arguably more dependent on networked computer systems than any other country in the world. Washington must halt the spiral toward an arms race, which, in the long term, it is not guaranteed to win.