Future of Cyber War Remains Uncertain as US Cyber Command Becomes Fully Operational

Gen. Keith B. Alexander, U.S. Cyber Command, Photo: nsa.gov

Last week, the Defense Department announced U.S. Cyber Command, tasked with defending DoD’s military networks against cyber assaults, is now fully operational.

In other words, Cybercom, if necessary, is ready for cyber war.

It all started with a worm-infested flash drive left in the parking lot of a Defense Department base in the Middle East.

It led to the worst-ever breach of U.S. military computers when the flash drive, believed to have been planted by a foreign intelligence agency, was plugged into a computer attached to United States Central Command.

The ensuing clean-up job and defense effort known as Operation Buckshot Yankee eventually led to the creation of the U.S. Cyber Command in June 2009. The White House selected national security veteran Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who also heads the National Security Agency, to lead the new endeavor.

But even with Alexander’s steady hand at the till, it’s still not clear what exactly cyber war will look like.

The command’s mission, on paper, is oriented toward the defensive – thwarting the more than 100 foreign intelligence organizations with their eyes set on breaking into the Pentagon’s networks.

Cybercom’s mission could also expand, especially considering how interconnected computer networks are. In Congressional testimony in September, Alexander voiced support for a secure zone made up of military networks, as well as private ones critical to the nation’s well-being, such as power grids and defense companies working on vital technologies.

Even back then, though, Alexander said securing private computer networks was a tricky business.

But in the age of Stuxnet, the worm that targeted and threatened to cripple Iran’s critical infrastructure, some wonder if the command might also take a more offensive line on cyber attackers.

Recent media reports suggest Alexander and his team of cyber warriors are seeking the authority to engage in counterattacks to protect U.S. interests.

After all, Cybercom’s mission also carries with it the ability to engage in “full-spectrum” operations.

Those full-spectrum operations include blocking an adversary’s network and rewriting hackers’ malicious code to make it harmless.

The command’s expanded mission might step on some national security toes, though. The CIA usually has authority over covert operations and the State Department might begrudge the diplomatic following such proactive cyber measures.

When Cybercom reached fully operational status last week, it capped two years of efforts to prepare for the cyber future. But what that future will look like going forward and how Cybercom’s mission will change with evolving threats remains as uncertain as ever.

For more information and another interesting take on Cybercom, click here.

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