The question first came up when Estonian government servers went down in 2007, under a "denial-of-service" attack that seemed — but was never proven — to come officially from Russia. Estonia was a new member of NATO and felt bullied by its former Soviet big brother.
But the question was awkward, and it came up again when Georgian servers went down just before Russian tanks invaded a Georgian province in 2008. (Georgia also wants NATO membership as a shield against Russia.) Were cyber-attacks warfare, and should they trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which provides for collective self-defense? Should the U.S. and Europe consider launching ships and planes against Moscow if servers go down again in some new NATO capital, somewhere on the old Soviet frontier?
A group of experts assembled by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright suggested to NATO last spring that cyberwarfare had emerged as a major concern for the alliance — one of three modes of attack its members had to worry about.
"The most probable threats to Allies in the coming decade are unconventional," reads the Albright Group's report. "Three in particular stand out," including a missile attack, a terrorist attack and "cyber assaults of varying degrees of severity."
So NATO will consider at its annual summit in Lisbon next month whether — or how — to classify cyber-assaults as violent provocations for the whole alliance.
The report acknowledges that the new century has introduced a new level of ambiguity to the art of war. "There is, of course, nothing ambiguous about a cross border military assault by the combined armed forces of a hostile country," the Albright report says. "However, there may well be doubts about whether an unconventional danger — such as a cyber attack or evidence that terrorists are planning a strike — triggers the collective defense mechanisms of Article 5."
Doubts include: where a cyber-assault may have originated, who ordered it, and how severe the damage has to be for Article 5 to be invoked. Cyberwarfare, in other words, brings a fresh element of politics into Allied defense, and it's not clear at all to powers like Russia that NATO will swing into action for the sake of a small member like Estonia.
The most recent notable act of computer warfare, the so-called Stuxnet worm, may or may not have been aimed at Iran by Israel, Germany, or the United States, and vagueness about the worm's origins have spared Iran the public pressure to start a shooting war with the West.
By now it's clear that Russian hackers were behind the Estonian attacks, though who directed them is still a mystery. The Kremlin denies having control over its peskily patriotic computer scientists — which didn't keep a Russian colonel from observing that the attacks had failed to rouse any major NATO response. "These attacks have been quite successful," said Col. Anatoly Tsyganok told Gazeta in 2008, "and today the alliance has nothing to oppose Russia's virtual attacks."
After November, it will. But then the world will have entered a strange new era. A "cyber-attack" will presumably have to damage far more than some Estonian government servers to trigger a NATO response, but the threshold will be on a sliding scale, and the definition of war itself may blur.
"NATO will face a lot of problems if cyber attacks are inserted into Article 5," Alex Neill, from the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense think tank, told Deutsche Welle earlier this month. "... There has been a concerted effort by some nations [like Germany and the United States] to pursue covert offensive cyber capabilities, and these could be harnessed by NATO as part of a joint response, although some nations may not want to show the level of their own capability, even to their allies."
If a cyber-assault can trigger a shooting war, then it also has to be mentioned that NATO will have a murky political mechanism to create false-flag pretexts for war — rather like the Gulf of Tonkin attacks that led, legally, to the American war against North Vietnam.
"If something happens, you can blame anything on anybody," is how journalist Webster Tarpley described it in an interview with Russia Today. Normally, I wouldn't invoke Tarpley because of his allegiances to Lyndon LaRouche, but on this topic he states the obvious. "If we have a crash in the D.C. Metro, what to do? Blame a hacker in Russia, or China, or Sudan, and who in the world is gonna be able to say no?"