The Logic and The Bomb

Originally posted: Wed, 08 May 2019 09:05:06

Cyber Warfare has just entered a new, and dangerous reality. Is this vicious overkill, a well-measured response, an outlier, or the shape of things to come?

CLEARED FOR RELEASE: We thwarted an attempted Hamas cyber offensive against Israeli targets. Following our successful cyber defensive operation, we targeted a building where the Hamas cyber operatives work. HamasCyberHQ.exe has been removed.— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) 5 May 2019

Sunday, the IDF released the above Tweet after demolishing a building that allegedly housed Hamas' cyber operatives, during a cyber-attack. Kinetic warfare met the digital offensive with a bang.

Why is this important?

This is hybrid warfare, where online offensives and IRL retaliation meet. This is largely the first time it's ever happened, if you put aside drone attack on ISIL keyboard cowboys, that may well have just been for his other activities for the group, rather than specifically for his online prowess. You might also point to the destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure, although that is likely more a direct result of the cyber war campaign than ground forces.

This Wired article takes a good look at what happened, although it cautions that this incident should be viewed as more specific to the Israeli-Palestinian death game than as a wider indication of digital ether versus bombs-and-bullets battles. I disagree.

The precedent has now been set, and unlike the outlier nuclear bomb, it's out of the box now. This will not be the last time we see this hybrid warfare, and the implications of that are not good. Noted InfoSec researcher Bruce Schneier sees this as an opening to another form of asymmetric warfare.

To put it in terms of the ongoing conflict in Israel, it does appear at first glance to be a massive overkill reaction, especially considering that they claimed to have fended off the cyber-attack already. However, there does seem to be a claim that intelligence agents were operating out of the building as well. Very little has been said officially other than the rather tasteless Tweet. Should there be evidence that Hamas operatives other than hackers were being run out of the building, then perhaps there is a justification for such an extreme measure. As it stands, it just looks like the IDF killed support staff not active combatants.

And this is the crux of the matter as a whole: yes, hackers are waging a war, albeit on digital grounds. But that is a distinction worth considering: yes, hackers can cause immense amounts of havoc, and can physically destroy or otherwise render infrastructure useless. Yes, they can steal critical information and compromise systems, which can lead to putting people in harm’s way. But can they be classed as active combatants, or are they supporting staff?

I am by no means the one to answer that question. I'm not remotely qualified to pass judgement there. My gut instinct is to class them somewhere between support staff and non-combatant intelligence analysts, which should keep them from front-line action, but again, I'm not informed or qualified enough to decide this in the wider scheme of things. But someone needs to. Pandora's box has been opened once again, and the rules need to be clarified before we end up here again, which we most certainly will.

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