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Could Hackers Start World War III?

Jul 02, 14 Could Hackers Start World War III?

As a student of history, I have been closely watching the media coverage of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I this summer. The coverage, as I noted recently, has been on the light side — perhaps in part as I also noted that America’s entry to the war didn’t happen until 1917.

Europe, meanwhile, slugged it out for nearly three full years before American troops went “Over There.”

Here is the other thing: why did the Great War (as it was known then) begin? The truth is that dozens of books have been written about it and still it is hotly debated. Comedian/talk show host Bill Maher even noted on his show on HBO that he can’t understand why it started. Yet “the war to end all wars,” as it was also known, caused many problems that are still ongoing. I noted in a recent story for the history website Armchair General that today’s conflict in Iraq can be traced to WWI .

Now, 100 years after European leaders were unable to stop a Great War from breaking out — and truth is that a war was inevitable — there is the very real danger that the slow fuse to World War III has been lit again.

This week redOrbit reported that Russian hackers, believed to have ties to the Russian Federation’s government, have been targeting western energy companies. This news follows the ongoing Chinese state-sponsored hacking efforts conducted by the People’s Liberation Army.

The fact that China and Russia are actually sponsoring hacking efforts against Western interests is frightening enough, but recently ZDNet reported something that should send a chill down the spines of anyone who understands international treaties. NATO — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which the United States is a founding member — recently updated its cyber defense policy.

“For the first time we state explicitly that the cyber realm is covered by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, the collective defence clause,” Jamie Shea, deputy assistant security general for emerging security challenges, told ZDNet. “We don’t say in exactly which circumstances or what the threshold of the attack has to be to trigger a collective NATO response and we don’t say what that collective NATO response should be.”

This might seem like routine posturing by NATO, but consider the exact wording of Article 5 as it is explained on NATO’s website:

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

Only once has this article ever been invoked and that was the September 11 attacks in 2001.

However, what NATO determined this week is that a major cyber attack could be considered on the same level as an actual “armed attack.” What constitutes “major” isn’t clear and Shea added NATO would review such cyber-attacks on a “case-by-case basis,” but that at a “certain level of intensity of damage, malicious intention, a cyber attack could be treated as the equivalent of an armed attack.”

World War I did not really start because of the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. That was just the catalyst that put a number of things — including treaty obligations — in motion. Thus it is not hard to see that a cyber attack by state-sponsored hackers could result in a similar catalyst for another major war.

There are currently 28 member states from North America and Europe. So clearly it would be unwise to attack NATO. Moreover, while at the height of the Cold War there was in fact the rival Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact, there is no such rival today. In fact, 10 of the current members of NATO were actually members of the Warsaw Pact. This should, in theory, make the world safer.

Of course there were probably many who felt that the treaties of the late 19th and early 20th century would guarantee peace. When war did come in 1914, it was thought it would solve the world’s problems — it didn’t and it only created many new ones.

The great worry now is that it would be easy to think that a cyber attack could be conducted as an alternative to traditional war, but as NATO has now shown, the West won’t stand by in such an attack and that could have dire consequences indeed!

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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