Ever since the advent of the internet age cyber hackers have shown an increasing propensity and technical proficiency to hack into the computer systems of rival governments, corporate entities or individuals. Apart from gaining sensitive information, these hackers have learned to introduce viruses into the computer systems of their antagonists. One recent example was the so called Stuxnet virus allegedly introduced by the United States into the computers connected with Iran’s nuclear program. The apparent objective was to make the centrifuges malfunction thereby allegedly putting a spanner in the works of Iran’s uranium enrichment capability.
According to some reports, this cyber attack was successful and it took quite a while for the Iranian scientists to put their systems back into working order. The technology for cyber attacks can be mastered by practically all countries and therefore the threat of retaliation against US interests by Iran cannot be discounted. Yesterday, a New York Times report revealed that it had been attacked by Chinese hackers ostensibly in retaliation for the newspaper publishing details of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s family assets. While China has denied doing this, the Financial Times states in an oped points to a new investigation of the Chinese committing cyber attacks on Western companies. The Financial Times has also informed us in the same oped that cyber warfare is now one of the world’s top five security threats and that “everyone is at it”. The answer to reduce the increasing danger of cyber warfare is for the international community to devise a code of conduct for countries which would reduce such activity. Obviously such a mechanism would contain provisions for heavy penalties for countries that breached this code of conduct. One precedent which has been quoted by the London Economist to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Another example which comes to my mind is the Law of the Sea Treaty, where nations have agreed not to squabble over marine resources. Based on these international precedents there is a clear and immediate need for discussions by the international community at the United Nations to start framing a law governing cyber space. In the absence of such a mechanism, international relations will continue to be bedeviled by hackers having a field day and creating tensions which might even lead to armed conflict.