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Rudy Perkins: Time to ban cyber warfare

The Times reported that there was evidence that the Chinese hackers “using methods that some consultants have associated with the Chinese military in the past, breached the Times’s network.” Last summer, the Gazette and other media outlets reported that the United States, with the help of Israel, had secretly launched cyber attacks on Iran, at least as early as 2010, likely including the so-called “Stuxnet” computer worm. Iran’s national oil company and oil ministry were also reportedly the victims of cyber attacks last year, and the country has been hit by other cyber attacks, some of which Iran has blamed on the U.S., Britain and Israel.

Israel’s Prime Minister stated last fall that Israel was now subject to daily attempts at cyber attacks, some of which may have been Iranian cyber retaliation for Stuxnet. The Saudi Aramco oil company (once known as the Arabian American Oil Co.), the world’s largest oil producer, also suffered a significant cyber attack last year, which some believe may have been part of Iran’s retaliation for Stuxnet. Elsewhere, Russia has been accused of launching cyber attacks on both Georgia and Estonia.

In short, a number of governments, not known for their self-restraint, appear to be edging toward major combat and sabotage in cyberspace. A global treaty banning cyber warfare is long overdue.

The world now depends on computers and cyber connections for nearly every aspect of the global economy and daily life. From air-traffic control, to control systems for the electricity grid, hazardous chemical plants and nuclear power plants, to stock market trades and other daily business transactions, to everyone’s bank account balances and medical records, we depend on computer networks to protect our physical, economic and national security.

The cavalier view of too many governments seems to be that cyber warfare can be secretly targeted against other governments, without risk to the home population and without “collateral damage” to civilians. In today’s interconnected world, this view is, to put it bluntly, incredibly stupid.

At least one cyber weapon has already gotten out of control on the Web. The world learned about the secret Stuxnet cyber weapon used against Iran because that digital worm got loose on the Internet and showed up in Asian, European and American computers. This reveals one of many possible dangers of cyber warfare. Just like real viruses (which the world, including the U.S., banned for war in the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention), computer viruses and worms could get loose and spread around the world, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

We need a strong universal treaty prohibiting the use of cyberspace for war. It should carry stiff enforcement mechanisms, perhaps with automatically authorized sanctions, digital embargoes or other enforcement if a country violates the treaty.

A treaty will not in itself end cyberwarfare, no more than making murder illegal ends all murders. But it would be a start, putting governments everywhere on notice that this form of warfare crosses a line that makes it a war crime, justifying international condemnation and international sanction.

Similar treaties have been helpful in preventing nations from using poison gas, bio-weapons and nuclear weapons against their neighbors.

The world was wise enough to ban the development of biological weapons in 1975, knowing the danger that weaponized viruses and bacteria could replicate and spread beyond the battlefield, putting all of humanity in danger. In some ways cyber viruses could be more threatening, because unlike the human bloodstream, the human electronic bloodstream is shared worldwide, and a virus introduced at one location has the potential to spread very rapidly everywhere.

The daily life of all is now dependent on the life blood of electronic information flow, for better or worse. It’s time for citizens everywhere to demand that governments not use cyberspace for war.

Rudy Perkins lives in Amherst.

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