COVER STORY: The fifth battle domain - cyberspace
by Peter Coates
News Weekly, July 21, 2007
To the four traditional domains of war - land, sea, air and outer space - has now been added a fifth domain: cyberspace, writes Peter Coates.
Wars have long been fought on land and sea. In the last 100 years most countries have also fought in the air, and some (such as the US, Russia and, more recently, China) are able to fight in space. A fifth warfare domain is gradually being defined - cyberspace. Domestic cyber surveillance is a relatively new area which may impinge on our civil liberties if regulated poorly.
In the early 1980s, William Gibson, in his science-fiction novel Neuromancer, coined the term cyberspace which today is defined as the metaphorical space of computer systems and networks, where electronic data is stored and online communication takes place.
Moves in the US to create a new cyberspace command gained impetus in the US following:
• a rise in importance and scope of the Internet;
• identification of communication deficiencies that contributed to September 11, 2001;
• counter-insurgency requirements for the US-led occupation of Iraq from 2003; and
• the development of doctrine and experience in the "War on Terror".
Cyberspace became an official US Air Force domain in December 2005, when its mission statement was altered to include the words "to fly and fight in air, space, and cyberspace".
Dr Lani Kass, director of the US Air Force Cyberspace Task Force, vividly described the potential of cyber warfare in a US Air Force (USAF) article (October 5, 2006). She said:
"What I see in the future is true cross-domain integration, to deliver effects, like we deliver in air and space, where the commander has at his disposal truly sovereign options, as stated in our mission, which is the ability to do whatever we want, wherever we want, whenever we want, and however we want - kinetically, and non-kinetically and at the speed of sound and at the speed of light....
"[Cyber warfare] allows us to help find, fix and finish the targets we are after. The problem is finding the target. Most of the enemies are hiding in plain sight."
On November 2, 2006, it was announced that the 8th Air Force would become the new Air Force Cyberspace Command, headquartered at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. Cyberspace Command is expected to be fully operational by late 2009.
The US has recently identified China as a major potential source of a cyber attack (through using computer viruses).
Within the US, several key organisations defend that country's cyberspace interests including:
• The Department of Homeland Security's National Cyber Security Division, which works collaboratively with public, private and international entities to secure cyberspace and America's cyber assets;
• The CIA's Information Operations Center Analysis Group, which evaluates foreign threats to US computer systems, particularly those that support critical infrastructures;
• The FBI National Security Branch, which, among other activities, can install bugs or wiretaps against suspected foreign terrorists; and
• The US National Security Agency (NSA), which secretly collects and analyses foreign and (controversially) domestic communications, and protects US Government communications. US Air Force Intelligence and other US military intelligence arms closely work with the NSA and support it with manpower for interception and language translation tasks.
In Australia there is less transparency, information and spin regarding cyber warfare. However, as our military forces and law-enforcement agencies are less powerful than those in the US, our reliance on cyber warfare is critical.
In Australia there is no direct equivalent to Cyberspace Command and the term cyber warfare appears to be uncommon in Australian military circles. Instead, the older, roughly equivalent term, electronic warfare (EW), is still current and largely centred on units within the three armed services (army, navy and air force).
Moves to consolidate and centralise our "cyber warfare" effort can be seen in the following examples:
1) the creation of a comprehensive range of command, control, communications, computing and intelligence (C4I) systems for Headquarters Joint Operations Command (HQJOC) expected to be completed in late 2008; and
2) the proposal to centralise signals-training at the Defence Force School of Signals (DFSS), Simpson Barracks, Watsonia, Victoria, by moving in personnel from HMAS Cerberus, Victoria, and from the Electronic Warfare Wing at Carbarlah, Queensland.
Working closely with the Australian armed services is another "cyber warrior", Australia's Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), which is equivalent to the NSA. The DSD is our national authority for signals intelligence and information security.
More secretly, the DSD probably provides technical advice and decoding support for several Australian organisations that combat terrorism and other threats in cyberspace. These organisations include the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and federal and state police forces which can, by law, use wiretaps and Internet surveillance.
There are various committees in Parliament, the bureaucracy and the military which coordinate Australia's cyber effort. As well as the DSD, key areas of Australia's information security exist in the Attorney-General's Department (including Telecommunications and Surveillance Law Branch, AusCERT and GovCERT).
An information security specialist, Prof. Matthew Warren of Deakin University, recently said that he felt that "Australia needs to increase the funding and expand initiatives to protect critical infrastructure if it is to avoid a cyber war similar to the one that [recently] struck Estonia". (Computer-world, May 25, 2007).
In May this year, Russian-based hackers, with or without Russian Government coordination, launched a damaging cyber attack that "crashed" several Estonian Government computer systems.
Soon after 9/11, the US Bush Administration decided that to effectively fight the War on Terror, the normal system of warrants that justified domestic phone-taps, involving the NSA, could be bypassed. This political decision to bypass the judiciary has given the NSA a highly intrusive capability in the domestic sphere.
All this poses significant dangers to the rights of Americans to privacy and freedom from excessive government power. Similarly, this poses dangers for Australians regarding our own intelligence organisations.
We don't know whether Australia has gone as far down the same road as the US regarding warrantless phone-taps and related mass information-harvesting. We simply don't know how DSD operates domestically, because we're never told. More is known about ASIO, but that is only one player in a network.
In addition to the potential abuse of political power are physical realities. The physics of cyberspace mean that it cannot be regulated by national or other geographical boundaries. This is because today communications, carried by satellite, landlines or undersea cables, almost always consist of a computer-scrambled mixture of foreign and domestic phone calls, SMS and internet messages.
This domestic/foreign call mixing has led to increasing legal and political problems for intelligence organisations with specific domestic or foreign mandates to "fight" in cyberspace. Organisations (like the NSA) charged with intercepting foreign messages may be sifting (by keyword search) through millions of calls and text messages simultaneously.
Only after a relevant word is found might it be possible to discern whether the words came from one's own country or overseas, let alone from one's own citizens or foreigners. Thus, intrusive information-gathering capabilities of the NSA (or perhaps Australia's DSD) - intended for foreign communications - may be turning against us.
The first safeguard against excessive cyber-warfare powers might well be the sense of responsibility of the officers in DSD, ASIO and the police forces involved. Secrecy requires duty of care.
Overall responsibility, however, rests with the Minister for Defence (presumably responsible for any DSD domestic activity), the Attorney-General (handling ASIO) and the Prime Minister. They must collectively weigh up security threats and not necessarily be caught up with US or UK approaches to the War on Terror.
In conjunction with sound political and administrative decisions there should be adherence to the spirit and letter of the law, including relevant telecommunications legislation.
In Australia cyber-surveillance may run ahead of legislation owing to:
• necessary secrecy;
• political or bureaucratic intent;
• extreme technical complexity;
• rapid and unforeseen technical change;
• inevitable difficulties in identifying geographical and citizenship boundaries; and
• government concern that the public will oppose surveillance.
A major safeguard that should not be circumvented in Australia is the system of warrants and the judiciary. Relevant judges who approve warrants for phone-taps must be sufficiently informed of the technical implications of these warrants. Are the warrants specific enough but still effective?
It is important that Australia maintain adequate parliamentary oversight of domestic cyber surveillance activities. One key "watcher of the watchers" is the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (with oversight of ASIO, ASIS and DSD). Necessary revisions in the law should be made to keep in step with technical changes (and visa versa). This is one area for the Security Legislation Review Committee, which reports to Parliament.
Organisations like Electronic Frontiers Australia appear to be well informed about cyber dangers. Royal Commissions are always an option if the relatively new area of cyber surveillance goes off the rails.
Cyber warfare and its domestic permutation (cyber surveillance) would appear to be extraordinarily new and complex areas - because they are! The technical, political, intelligence, military and legal issues involved are largely ignored by Australians.
But now and then, as experienced in the US over NSA activities, some of these issues can burst to the surface. While the safeguards against the abuses of government cyber-surveillance might be currently adequate, our Government should consider gently revealing more if the bald truth might shock us.
- Peter Coates is an independent researcher who formerly worked for the Australian Government on intelligence and policy issues. His website is Pete's Blog.