Pentagon Puts Cyberwarriors on the Offensive, Increasing the Risk of Conflict

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has quietly empowered the United States Cyber Command to take a far more aggressive approach to defending the nation against cyberattacks, a shift in strategy that could increase the risk of conflict with the foreign states that sponsor malicious hacking groups.

Until now, the Cyber Command has assumed a largely defensive posture, trying to counter attackers as they enter American networks. In the relatively few instances when it has gone on the offensive, particularly in trying to disrupt the online activities of the Islamic State and its recruiters in the past several years, the results have been mixed at best.

But in the spring, as the Pentagon elevated the command’s status, it opened the door to nearly daily raids on foreign networks, seeking to disable cyberweapons before they can be unleashed, according to strategy documents and military and intelligence officials.

The change in approach was not formally debated inside the White House before it was issued, according to current and former administration officials. But it reflects the greater authority given to military commanders by President Donald Trump, as well as a widespread view that the United States has mounted an inadequate defense against the rising number of attacks aimed at America.

It is unclear how carefully the administration has weighed the various risks involved if the plan is acted on in classified operations. Adversaries like Russia, China and North Korea, all nuclear-armed states, have been behind major cyberattacks, and the United States has struggled with the question of how to avoid an unforeseen escalation as it wields its growing cyberarsenal.

Another complicating factor is that taking action against an adversary often requires surreptitiously operating in the networks of an ally, like Germany — a problem that often gave the Obama administration pause.

The new strategy envisions constant, disruptive “short of war” activities in foreign computer networks. It is born, officials said, of more than a decade of counterterrorism operations, where the United States learned that the best way to take on al-Qaida or the Islamic State was by destroying the militants inside their bases or their living rooms.

The objective, according to the new “vision statement” quietly issued by the command, is to “contest dangerous adversary activity before it impairs our national power.”

“It is essentially a ‘forward defense’ approach,” Jason Healey, who runs the cyber initiative at Columbia University in New York, said recently. “Clearly, what we have been doing so far isn’t working. But you want to think through the consequences carefully.”

The chief risk is that the internet becomes a battleground of all-against-all, as nations not only place “implants” in the networks of their adversaries — something the United States, China, Russia, Iran and North Korea have done with varying levels of sophistication — but also begin to engage in daily attack and counterattack.

Full article: Pentagon Puts Cyberwarriors on the Offensive, Increasing the Risk of Conflict (WRAL)

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