A report on the events of August 2008 by the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, a non-profit research institute, suggests that future conflicts may follow a similar course, raising difficult questions about who represents the enemy in cyberspace and what countermeasures might be appropriate against civilian combatants.
An overview of the report states that the cyber attacks against targets in Georgia were carried out by civilians with little or no involvement of the Russian military. But the organizers of the cyber attacks had advance notice of the Russian plans and were told when military operations had commenced so they could coordinate digital bombardment with physical bombardment.
"Many of the cyber attacks were so close in time to the corresponding military operations that there had to be close cooperation between people in the Russian military and the civilian cyber attackers," the report overview states. "When the cyber attacks began, they did not involve any reconnaissance or mapping state, but jumped directly to the sort of packets that were best suited to jamming the Web sites under attack. This indicates that the necessary reconnaissance and the writing of the attack scripts had to have been done in advance."
John Bumgarner, research director for security technology at the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, who helped prepare the report, said that government policies to deal with this blurring of lines between military and civilian aggression has yet to be formulated.
The matter is complicated by the fact that civilians may not necessarily be participating in such events willingly, if their computers are compromised and are part of a botnet.
"Where are the battle lines in cyberspace?" asks Bumgarner. "And who is the enemy?"
Those questions may take a decade or longer to answer, said Bumgarner. It's a very complex set of issues, he said, and will only become more so as the slow spread of broadband Internet connectivity brings more people with divergent views together online.
Bumgarner expects the attacks on Georgia to become a template for upcoming acts of aggression. "It will be a trend that will be in future conflicts," he said. "Civilians can become willing participants in fairly major cyber events and they can be anywhere in the world."
And many appear ready to do so. Earlier this month, in conjunction with the first anniversary of the conflict between Georgia and Russia, a pro-Georgia blogger was targeted on Blogger, Facebook, LiveJournal, and Twitter with a denial of service attack.
The answer, Bumgarner says, isn't turning the Internet into the equivalent of a police state. Rather, it's more openness and information sharing so the impact of cyber conflicts can be mitigated.
Ultimately, he says, the Internet may need an international organization, like the U.N. Security Council, to handle acts of cyber aggression.
InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on smartphone security. Download the report here (registration required).