In the face of recent cyber attacks across the globe, member nations belonging to the NATO alliance are now warning that these attacks could one day result in the invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, a clause which proclaims that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all countries and calls for every member to come to the defense of the country being attacked. As reported by Softpedia News on July 4th 2017, “The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) warned that the recent WannaCry and Petya ransomware attacks could trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, explaining that responses to whoever launches such cyber operations could be in the form of military means.”
The article goes on to explain that because ransomware attacks such as Wanna Cry and Petya were ultimately created by state sponsored hackers, “if a cyber-attack causes consequences comparable to an armed attack, then members can apply the laws of armed conflict.” The article also quotes Tomáš Minárik, researcher at NATO CCD COE Law Branch, whom explains that “There is a lack of a clear coercive element with respect to any government in the campaign, so prohibited intervention does not come into play. As important government systems have been targeted, then in case the operation is attributed to a state this could count as a violation of sovereignty. Consequently, this could be an internationally wrongful act, which might give the targeted states several options to respond with countermeasures.”
— Cabling Hub Toronto (@CablingHub) July 4, 2017
There is little doubt that the timing of this announcement was meant to coincide with the upcoming G20 summit due to take place this weekend in Germany, where among other headlines, President Trump and President Putin will formally meet in person for the first time. Likely, by putting this announcement in international headlines this week, NATO is trying to send a stern warning to the Russian President directly ahead of the important event.
Ironically and somewhat hypocritically though, the same tools and attacks that NATO is citing as the reason for their warning this week – WannaCry and Petya – were actually first developed by the United States. More specifically, by the National Security Agency. Remember, the ransomware attacks of 2017 were only made possible using modified versions of files, exploits and tools originally leaked from inside the NSA in 2016. So, if the United States is now going to say that using and possessing these tools constitutes an act of War, is the United States not also admitting that it has been engaging in covert acts of War against various countries for years on end now?
Regardless, NATO’s announcement this week comes a little less than 13 months after the organization officially recognized “cyber space” as an official realm of Warfare, joining more traditional venues such as land, sea, air and space. As you might remember, on June 14th 2016, as reported by BILD News, while speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Belgium, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that “The North Atlantic Trade Organization (NATO) has officially announced that “cyber” will become an official battleground for its members, which means that cyber-attacks on one country will trigger a collective military response from the entire alliance.”
— CERT Polska (@CERT_Polska_en) June 15, 2016
At the time, secretary Stoltenberg’s announcement was meant to put a curb in the rise of cyber attacks around the world, something which it has ultimately failed to do. Still though, this weeks announcement adds to an already tense and complicated subject, only increasing the likelihood that a traditional military response could result from an act of cyber espionage in the future. With that said, the same concerns and criticisms that cyber security analysts levied against NATO’s announcement last summer are just as applicable today.
For example, just as Donald Trump once famously pointed out, if you do not catch a hacker in the act, it is virtually impossible to track or find the perpetrator behind the attack. While we may know the country where some of the worlds most prominent hackers and hacking groups come from, such as the Russian Fancy Bears, there is limited to no evidence directly linking this group to the Kremlin. This is essentially the problem which exists from all acts of hacking, unless a country comes out and claims responsibility for the hack, there is virtually no way of proving the true party or intentions behind it.
As you can imagine, it would be highly irresponsible for any military to go to War without a clear and concise reason for doing so. Hacking someone or something will never be equal to physically killing or executing someone, this is why it will always be hard to justify going to War over something as small as a computer crime.