Cyberwar Happening Here and Now?

Conflict has unfortunately been part of the human experience for thousands of years. In prehistoric times, rocks, sticks, and bones were some of the weapons of choice. Over time, humans became more sophisticated, utilizing knives, swords, bows and arrows, and eventually guns and cannons. Recent developments include nuclear threats and drone strikes.

There has been concern, rightly, that the Internet might provide a further means for waging war or dismantling the means of waging war by others. For example, a few years ago, Stuxnet, a computer worm, reportedly was launched by a U.S. and Israeli intelligence operation to attack and cause the tearing apart of programmable logic controllers of certain Iranian centrifuges that were designed for potential nuclear purposes.

And more recent news on this front has been quite disturbing. For example, U.S. officials reportedly have informed NBC News that Russia initiated a “sophisticated cyberattack” on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff unclassified email system — a system which then was taken down for a couple weeks.

This “sophisticated cyber intrusion” happened in late July and impacted approximately 4,000 personnel employed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On the one hand, officials reportedly have said that it is not plain whether the attack was supported by Russia’s government, but on the other hand, officials reportedly have stated that the attack “clearly was the work of a state actor.” These officials emphasize that classified information supposedly was not seized, and that only unclassified accounts were compromised — hopefully, that indeed is the case.

Meanwhile, a month earlier, the Office of Personnel Management told the public that a database housing personal information relating to roughly 4 million current and former employees had been hacked. United States officials reportedly stated in private that this was the work of the Chinese government, even though the administration did not directly accuse China with respect to this attack. China has denied any suggestion of involvement.

It is true that even if Russia and China were behind these hacks, they did not perpetrate true military assaults — there was no physical harm caused to anyone that we know of at this point. However, if Russia and China so easily might be able to obtain sensitive information of U.S. government employees, this might not bode well. It is a depressing thought that Russia and China might develop the capability over the Internet to access, disrupt, or gain control of U.S. mission critical military systems and other systems that address the functions of nuclear power plants, air traffic control, the electrical grid, or water supply and distribution.

As Stuxnet demonstrated, we now live in a world where cyber attacks are real and cyberwars could cause immeasurable damage. These attacks could become greater in terms of potential harm, and thus the Internet will be a place where defensive efforts are put in place, even when defense goes on the offensive. Are these acts of war? Not in the traditional sense, but the protection of humans lives can be at stake.

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod’s columns, please email him at with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s law firm or its individual partners.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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