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West plays catch-up in cyber warfare

For the West, 'cyber' is a tightly defined concept, unlike for Russia and China

"Many Western experts believe stealing defence and other US commercial secrets has been at the heart of China's military and economic modernisation."

When Estonia became the first nation on the receiving end of an overwhelming cyber attack 10 years ago, government and other critical websites and systems such as banking collapsed in one of the most Internet-connected countries of the time.

Widely blamed on Russia, the assault - sparked by Estonia's decision to move a Russian war memorial from the centre of its capital - prompted Western nations to plow billions into improving their cyber defences.

If something similar happened today, it could be even more disruptive and dangerous - and also more complex.

Western states, militaries and companies have made strides in building the technical ability to guard against cyber attacks.

But, as often with new technologies, developing the doctrine and expertise to know how to use them inevitably lags behind.

That points to a broader problem.

A decade after the Estonia attack, the West's potential enemies still have a better sense of what they want to achieve in cyberspace than the US or its allies.

For the West, "cyber" remains a tightly defined concept, a matter of protecting nationally vital systems, keeping secrets or finding them out from potential enemies. For countries like Russia and China, however, it has become something much broader.

Many Western experts believe stealing defence and other US commercial secrets has been at the heart of China’s military and economic modernisation.

In last year's US presidential election, Russia is believed to have used a combination of hacking and the dissemination of real and false news to striking effect; the same has been true in political campaigns in Europe.

Many Western experts believe stealing defence and other US commercial secrets has been at the heart of China's military and economic modernisation.

When it comes to technical capability, specialists at the US' National Security Agency and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters are as good as anyone in the world. They are at least as sophisticated as any hackers that Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang or Teheran might field.

But Russia in particular is seen as going much further, sometimes delegating attacks to criminals and others outside government.

IMMUNITY

That strategy, Western experts say, allows such individuals and groups to operate with immunity providing they do not attack targets within their own nations - for example, through credit card theft - and are willing to help the state out with deniable attacks on foreign enemies when asked.

Potential targets often struggle to formulate a response to cyber attacks because identifying the source of the attacks is so difficult.

US authorities are engaged in a global crackdown on Russian hackers in particular, but that alone may not be enough to deter others. Preventing attacks in cyberspace is now considered almost as important as deterring physical attacks, and it is an area where the thinking is just beginning.

Some countries have taken their own steps.

The US and Israel are believed to have used the Stuxnet computer worm to reprogram Iran's nuclear centrifuges so that they tore themselves apart.

That action, however, opened the door to new potentially lethal forms of warfare.

Computer security experts report a rising number of attacks against industrial control systems, the sophisticated computer programs that operate power stations, water and fuel supplies and other similar infrastructure.

Clarifying the internationally understood rules around cyber attacks has long been a priority for the US and othernations.

RETALIATE

Since at least 2011, the US has maintained that it would retaliate for any cyber attack that caused physical damage or death in the same way it would a physical assault, potentially considering it an act of war.

Partly as a result, the West's foes have turned to softer targets.

Iran is believed to have responded to US sanctions and interference in its nuclear programs by attacking the US banking system, at one point causing considerable if temporary disruption to a number of major institutions.

Because his presidential campaign is believed to have benefited from alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee, US President Donald Trump and his administration are in an awkward place when it comes to formulating new approaches to such uncertain situations.

But they don't have much choice. As it approaches its teen years, cyber warfare will only get more troublesome.

The writer is Reuters' global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues.

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