Six Big Thoughts on Global Cyber Challenges

Cyber Initiator

U.S. officials recently detailed an offensive cyber operation undertaken by U.S. Cyber Command to The Washington Post, revealing how the military blocked Internet access to St. Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency on the day of the U.S. midterm elections last year.

“The operation marked the first muscle-flexing by U.S. Cyber Command, with Intelligence from the National Security Agency, under new authorities it was granted by President Trump and Congress last year to bolster offensive capabilities,” writes the Post’s Ellen Nakashima.

Military offensive cyber operations were just one of the important global issues that we discussed recently with Cipher Brief Expert Dr. James Miller, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2012-2014.

In a Cipher Brief Exclusive, we asked Dr. Miller to outline his biggest concerns when it comes to future global cyber challenges.  Dr. Miller has spoken in the past at the International Conference on Cyber Engagement, being held this year on April 23, and hosted by Catherine Lotrionte and the Atlantic Council. 

Status of Military Operations in Cyberspace – Cyber Deterrence and Military Offensive Operations

Miller: I’m focused on the status of military operations in cyberspace, both on a day-to-day basis, and including issues related to cyber deterrence. The Defense Science Board has done some work on that topic, and Cyber Command has laid out their new vision to achieve, and maintain, cyberspace superiority.

The discussion has changed over the last few months, and I think our allies and partners as well as our potential adversaries, would welcome a continued conversation on that topic. The United States needs to listen to our allies and partners, as well as the perspective of our potential adversaries, in understanding what that competition looks like, where the potential for escalation is and so forth.

International Norms

Miller: Something I’ve discussed a lot with Catherine Lotrionte, and something that she has focused on quite a bit during her past conferences, has been on the issue of international norms.

Again, there have been some interesting recent developments.  The UN GGE (Group of Governmental Experts) did some good work several years ago. This past December, they adopted a resolution focused on advancing responsible state behavior in cyberspace.   We also have the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, and there are additional works that have been underway by some of our allies and partners.  I’ve been thinking about those norms both for governments and for the private sector and how they interact.  On that thought, an extension of the Paris call is the Cybersecurity Tech Accord, where the private sector is beginning to assert, in some pretty strong ways, what it will and won’t do.  This is both a challenge and an opportunity for the United States.

Working with Allies and Partners on Cyber Defense

Miller:  The topic of where we are right now in working with our allies and partners in cyber really intersects with the previous two issues.

There have been important recent developments including the last NATO summit with the opening of the Cyber Operations Center.  If you think about this in the NATO context, for decades there were two pillars of NATO security; the conventional deterrent and the nuclear deterrent. Less than a decade ago, missile defense was added as a key component, and now cyber over the past six to eight years has begun to work its way in to the defense strategy. Starting with the Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia. And now it’s the Cyber Operations Center, which basically says, “Although NATO doesn’t have offensive cyber capabilities, nations can bring them in.”

Cyber will need to be integrated in ways really analogous to other types of operations.  And given that much of that cyber activity, both preparation, and in some instances implementation, may occur in peace time or the so called ‘gray zone’ or whatever you’d like to call it, I think it’s going to open up a new set of issues; an important set of issues for NATO.

Let me add, NATO’s not the only game. U.S. cooperation with many others, including the U.K., Australia, and others, is growing as well and this collective defense posture is something that should be of interest not just to those directly engaged in it, but to the private sector. On the other hand, it sends an important message to our potential adversaries that we’re strengthening our defense posture.  That would hopefully serve to deter them from taking what would otherwise be undesired actions from our perspective.

If we think about this visually, I think about concentric circles, where the first circle is close U.S. allies and partners and many of those relationships are bilateral rather than multilateral. The U.S. and Japan, the U.S. and South Korea, etc. Then, beyond that inner circle of government to government work, you have the military perspective and NATO. From a still broader perspective, you’ve got other institutions including the EU, and then you’ve got the U.N. in the broader group of efforts to include that recent Paris Call for Trust and Security and the prior work of the UN GGE.

Those are all important venues for working through these issues and I would add to these one additional one, and that is the so-called track 1.5, track 2 discussions with Russia and China.  We need to understand not just what our allies are thinking, but try to understand better what our potential adversaries think as well.

Emerging Technologies

Miller: The landscape is changing so quickly as technology evolves that it’s difficult to have confidence in what the cyberscape looks like 5 to 10 years down the road, or even 2-3 years down the road.  But there’s no doubt that AI is at the forefront of cyber security and I think it will be incredibly important. At the same time, AI has the potential to be a terrific tool for offensive cyber. And to the extent that it’s available to non-state actors, you’ve got a real possibility of the threat from non-state actors growing tremendously over the coming years if they’re able to exploit AI.

We also need to consider the emergence of 5G over the coming years as it goes more deeply into the countries where it’s already started and as it expands further.  It is going to be fundamental, not just to cyber security in general, but to economic growth – and what that means is that the competition for secure I.T. infrastructure is going to be intertwined with U.S. and Chinese economic competition.  We have a rapidly changing landscape for the technology and the key is going to be for the United States, and for others who support an open, free, and secure internet, to leverage those technologies to provide more resilience and more capability to defend as well as to use offense, selectively.

The Critical Private Sector Partnership

Miller: There’s no doubt that most of the best thinking and most of the cutting-edge innovation on I.T. is coming from the private sector.  In general, if you want to have a better posture as a country as an alliance or globally, it means fundamentally, working to empower the key elements of the private sector. The partnerships that the U.S. has had in the past with the private sector have been relatively narrow.

Keith Alexander, in particular, when he was, NSA Director and Cybercom Commander, really helped build strong partnerships that made real progress on some important challenges. The U.S. government’s going to need to think about how to organize itself more effectively to engage with the private sector and to take advantage of one of the great things about the United States, not just in cyber security, but overall, and that’s that we have some of the most innovative and inspired people that are driving change.  And our government’s got to be more effective in allowing that to permeate and help improve the posture of both governmental systems and critical infrastructure systems.

The Dynamics of Escalation in Cyberspace

Miller: We also really need to be thinking about the dynamics of escalation when potential vulnerabilities and potential targets include things ranging from conventional military systems and command and control to nuclear systems and command and control to the most vital of critical infrastructure including the energy grid and for the U.S., key elements of the financial sector.

I think a lot of good work has been done to date on acceptable norms during peace time in cyberspace. I think much more work needs to be done to define the U.S. perspective on escalatory dynamics and appropriate uses of cyber tools, and to better understand Russian and Chinese perspectives as well. As you know, when the Soviet Union collapsed, we found out that the U.S. assessment of their views was essentially incorrect, and that they had most of the procedures and elements in their nuclear command and control organized much differently than we thought.

This is going to put an increased value on both academic and think tank work. Particularly on the track 1.5 and track 2 discussions of these issues. Although the probability of a military conflict between the great powers is low, cyber is adding a new dimension to it that could fundamentally change those escalatory dynamics.

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 Dr. James N. Miller served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2012-2014 and as Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2009-2012. He is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab and at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs, and is a Cipher Brief Expert.  

Cyber Initiator

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