Air Force eyes tak­ing lead role in on­line war­fare re­search

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Shaun Water­man

Pro­cure­ment doc­u­ments re­leased by the U.S. Air Force give a rare glimpse into Pen­tagon plans for de­vel­op­ing an of­fen­sive cy­ber-war ca­pac­ity that can in­fil­trate, steal data from and, if nec­es­sary, take down en­emy in­for­ma­tion-tech­nol­ogy net­works.

The Broad Area An­nounce­ment, posted May 12 by the Air Force Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory’s In­for­ma­tion Di­rec­torate in Rome, N.Y., out­lines a two-year, $11 mil­lion ef­fort to de­velop ca­pa­bil­i­ties to “ac­cess to any re­motely lo­cated open or closed com­puter in­for­ma­tion sys­tems,” lurk on them “com­pletely un­de­tected,” “stealth­ily ex­fil­trate in­for­ma­tion” from them and ul­ti­mately “be able to af­fect com­puter in­for­ma­tion sys­tems through De­ceive, Deny, Dis­rupt, De­grade, De­stroy (D5) ef­fects.”

“Of in­ter­est,” the an­nounce­ment says, “are any and all tech­niques to en­able user and/or rootlevel ac­cess to both fixed [and] mo­bile com­put­ing plat­forms [. . . ] [and] method­olo­gies to en­able ac­cess to any and all op­er­at­ing sys­tems, patch lev­els, ap­pli­ca­tions and hard­ware.”

The an­nounce­ment is the latest stage in the Air Force’s ef­fort to de­velop a cy­ber-war ca­pa­bil­ity and es­tab­lish it­self as the ser­vice that de­liv­ers U.S. mil­i­tary power in cy­berspace.

Last year, the Air Force an­nounced it was set­ting up a Cy­berspace Com­mand, along­side its Space and Air com­mands, and was de­vel­op­ing mil­i­tary doc­trine for the pros­e­cu­tion of cy­ber-war op­er­a­tions.

The United States is not alone in think­ing along th­ese lines, and NATO an­nounced May 14 that seven Euro­pean na­tions had signed up to par­tic­i­pate in a cy­berde­fense Cen­ter of Ex­cel­lence, in Tallinn, Es­to­nia, which suf­fered a cy­ber-at­tack last year that many of­fi­cials think was or­ches­trated by Rus­sia.

The cen­ter will con­duct re­search and train­ing on cy­ber-war­fare and in­clude a staff of 30 peo­ple, half of them spe­cial­ists from the spon­sor­ing coun­tries — Es­to­nia, Ger­many, Italy, Latvia, Lithua­nia, Slo­vakia and Spain, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from NATO.

The de­vel­op­ments high­light the murky le­gal ter­ri­tory on which the cy­ber-wars of the fu­ture will be fought: ter­rain on which at- tack­ers can cloak their iden­tity and use as weapons the home com­put­ers of un­sus­pect­ing Web surfers that have been re­cruited to so-called “bot­nets” net­works of PCs that un­be­knownst to their own­ers have been com­pro­mised by hack­ers.

In a re­cent ar ticle for the Armed Forces Jour­nal, Col. Charles Wil­liamson, a staff judge ad­vo­cate for U.S. Air Force Intelligence, Sur­veil­lance and Re­con­nais­sance Agency, wrote that com­puter users whose equip­ment was re­cruited to bot­nets be­cause they failed to patch their sys­tems could not prop­erly be con­sid­ered by­standers.

“If the United States is de­fend­ing it­self against an at­tack that orig­i­nates from a com­puter which was co-opted by an at­tacker, then there are real ques­tions about whether the owner of that com­puter is truly in­no­cent. At the least, the owner may be cul­pa­bly neg­li­gent, and that does not, in fair­ness or law, pre­vent Amer­ica from de­fend­ing it­self if the harm is suf­fi­ciently grave,” wrote Col. Wil­liamson in the ar­ti­cle, which of­fi­cials were keen to stress does not rep­re­sent U.S. pol­icy.

More im­por­tant, be­cause of the dif­fi­cul­ties in iden­ti­fy­ing at­tack­ers and im­me­di­ately quan­ti­fy­ing dam­age from a cy­ber-at­tack, it can be hard to de­ter­mine when such at­tacks con­sti­tute an act of war as op­posed to crime or even van­dal­ism.

“No one’s come out and de­fined that yet,” Air Force Cy­berspace Com­mand spokes­woman Karen Pepitt told United Press In­ter­na­tional, adding that the Air Force saw its role as de­vel­op­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties for cy­ber-war, but that the de­ci­sion about when and how to use those ca­pa­bil­i­ties would be one for the na­tional lead­er­ship.

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