“Nuclear deterrence during the Cold War contemplated an automated response to attack by the Soviet Union, and similar automated responses to cyber attack are now being debated. Computer network attacks happen at the speed of light, so future threats require an equally rapid and perhaps automatic response,” writes Mark D. Young in the Journal of National Security Law and Policy.

The latest issue of the journal is devoted entirely to the emerging problem of cyber warfare, and it makes for a fascinating and frightening read.

Young is the special counsel for defense intelligence for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, so he knows whereof he speaks. His essay, one of fifteen in the issue, examines our national cyber warfare doctrine—or lack thereof. The problem of whether to establish an automatic response to a cyber assault is only one important corner of a universe in which non-violent actions by adversaries can bring about catastrophic outcomes.

The need for instantaneous response to attacks that can cripple networks in milliseconds is compelling. But at the same time, the “risks in removing human judgment from the network operations decision cycle are significant,” writes Young. He cites a report examining how the USS Vincennes, an Aegis guided-missile cruiser in the Persian Gulf, came to shoot down Iran Air flight 655 in 1988, believing it was an Iranian F-14 fighter zooming in with hostile intent:

Though the hard data were telling the human crew that the plane wasn’t a fighter jet, they trusted the computer more. Aegis was in semi-automatic mode, giving it the least amount of autonomy, but not one of the 18 sailors and officers in the command crew challenged the computer’s wisdom. They authorized it to fire.

Two hundred ninety passengers died from this semi-automatic response.

“The probability of cyber attacks is 100 percent,” writes Michael Chertoff in a foreword to the issue. “[W]e continue to suffer regular, ongoing, damaging intrusions by nations committing espionage, criminals stealing data, and hackers seeking to damage computer systems.”

With the problem of cyber warfare already well upon us, thinking about the thinkable has become an urgent task.

Gabriel Schoenfeld is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.

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