Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Georgia 2008 and Cyber Neutrality

I happened across an article [pdf] about neutrality in cyberspace by Korns and Kastenberg. In the article, the authors analyze an aspect of the 2008 Georgia cyber conflict that usually receives little attention: the fact that the Georgian government moved some of its online services to other countries during the war. Specifically, the authors worry about what this means to the neutrality of the host countries.

While they raise an interesting question, I do have some issues.

First, there is the question of whether US lost neutral status in the Russia-Georgia war by hosting some services:
"The fact that American IT companies provided assistance to Georgia, a cyber belligerent, apparently without the knowledge or approval of the US government, illustrates what is likely to become a significant policy issue."
Were Georgian websites under attack? Yes, no doubt. Was this a part of the Russian war campaign? Maybe, but at least officially the Russians deny their involvement. Well, if neither belligerent takes responsibility for the attacks, then we can't really refer to Georgia as a "cyber belligerent" (what does this mean, anyway?). We are left with attacks that do not amount to war, but crime or political hactivism, and I am unaware of any international prohibition on cooperating against criminals or hactivists - even on the business level. Besides, blaming Georgia for this decision is similar to arresting the victim of a street mugger, as the only known party in the criminal act.

Then there is the question of the type of aid that was provided to Georgia (citing a Supreme Court decision):
"If the US government establishes a strict position of neutrality, American industry may provide nonmilitary and humanitarian support to a belligerent, but firms are required to halt all commerce that militarily aids a combatant."
I believe this is undiscovered country. Presumably, the drafters of this document kept in mind the physical goods industry, whereas in cyberspace we are mostly concerned with services. Is hosting a government public relations website "commerce that militarily aids a combatant"? I would argue against that, because otherwise US would have to pull the plug on EVERYTHING every time there is a conflict where US remains neutral (although there is a question whether US was truly neutral in this case, as illustrated in the paper).
"Under a traditional international law rubric, to remain neutral in a cyber conflict a nation cannot originate a cyber attack, and it also has to take action to prevent a cyber attack from transiting its Internet nodes."
Since US is one of the leading nations harboring ISPs with questionable practices, and is also home to a large number of malware infected computers (bots in a botnet), then any time you have a large DDoS attack, US is likely to be on the "attack source" list [to be fair, the authors have also covered this aspect]. I consider it quite likely that at least some US-based computers were used against the Georgian sites during the war. If the Russian Federation was behind the attacks, does this mean that US lost its neutrality and became a belligerent? Again, I would say no. It would be great if US could clean up its part of the Internet, though.

The rest of the paper does a quick analysis of several potentially applicable laws and treaties. Again, while I do not agree with all of their conclusions, they have done a very good job of pulling together thought-provoking concepts. I highly recommend reading it.

These are just some first reactions, but I can see that I need to do some deep thinking on the subject.

Korns, S.W., Kastenberg, J.E. (2008) "Georgia’s Cyber Left Hook." Parameters: 38.4 : 60-76. U.S. Army War College. Available at:


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