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Claire Yorke: Cyberspace needs more politics, not less

It would be easy to view cyber attacks as a problem reserved for politicians, technocrats and IT departments. Yet with almost a third of the world's population now online, these attacks can affect national prosperity and security and undermine elements of everyday life, whether by disrupting national transport systems, stealing bank details for financial crime or accessing personal information for fraud.

The Pentagon's assertion this week that in certain circumstances these attacks can constitute "acts of war" highlights the growing significance attached to the virtual domain. Only last week it was revealed that Lockheed Martin, a major international aerospace company and the Pentagon's IT supplier, had been targeted. These attacks reveal inherent vulnerabilities in societies and national infrastructure and have also raised new questions: in particular, how can governments and societies respond effectively?

Unlike most conventional forms of hostility, cyber attacks can be carried out for comparatively little cost, with widely available equipment and minimal risk. Moreover, the cloak of anonymity that cyberspace provides means that the playing field is far more level than in conventional attacks.

States such as China or Russia that are often seen as the main threats and who cannot match the military power of the US stand a better chance in the cyber domain. Cyberspace enables states to express power and pursue their state interests in new ways. Espionage in particular can be carried out far more easily via cyberspace.

It should not, however, be seen as a total game changer. It would be wrong to assume that cyber attacks would replace conventional weapons entirely. And an online attack cannot have the same human casualty toll as an armed missile. It should be seen as an extension of the physical world. Acts such as criminality, fraud, espionage and military aggression have virtual equivalents.

It is important to insert more, not less, politics into cyberspace. The general absence of political consequences for attacks means that the stakes are low for those wishing to try their luck. If the stakes were raised it may deter those who do not wish to incur the diplomatic, political or economic consequences. The Pentagon appears to be trying to close this gap between cyberspace and the real world.

The writer is the programme manager for international security at Chatham House and co-author of 'On Cyber Warfare'