On July 8, 2016 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) published a Cyber Defense Pledge:
In recognition of the new realities of security threats to NATO, we, the Allied Heads of State and Government, pledge to ensure the Alliance keeps pace with the fast evolving cyber threat landscape and that our nations will be capable of defending themselves in cyberspace as in the air, on land and at sea.
Interstate hacking has been known about for years, being one of those things we always brush off as an inevitability of a globalized online world. Therefore NATO stepping into the ring and declaring the Internet as a theater of combat should come as no surprise, since NATO members have been working exhaustively to maintain online defenses for years. We seldom hear much specifically about this activity, but it would be a surprise to find any first-world power with the necessary capabilities that isn’t already engaged in these activities as part of their intelligence gathering strategies.
Looking at the modern landscape of international relations, it’s clear that cyber threats such as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks are a growing problem facing governments worldwide. And it isn’t just other nation states that governments need to worry about. Campaigns such as #ShutDownZimbabwe, the DDoS attacks carried out by Anonymous against the ZANU-PF party and Robert Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe, exemplify how protest groups can put enormous pressure on governments and their ability to conduct operations online. With such a variety of organizations hard at work, whether the motives are financial, political or something else, NATO members will have been concerned by the lack of protection and co-operation between states in policing the online world.
But while protest groups may cause embarrassment and put political pressure on individual governments, the impact of successful cyberattacks on critical infrastructure can be far more wide-reaching and justifies the assertion that cyberattacks truly are a weapon of war. The global economy is so intertwined with the Internet, that serious attacks can have major political repercussions. For example, the attacks on power grids in Ukraine late last year seriously destabilized the country and demonstrated the potential for DDoS attacks to be utilized as part of a larger military assault.
So what does NATO’s announcement mean in practice? It means we are likely to see several countries ramp up their security operations and perhaps co-operate online, coming to each other’s aid in special circumstances. It also looks like the cyber aspect of warfare is under close scrutiny and will undoubtedly be a new agenda item for future international meetings. It’s unclear whether we can expect a new wave of nation state attacks in the coming months, but this announcement does codify a new dimension of modern warfare that has always been mysterious and unknown.