President Barack Obama's "International Strategy for Cyberspace," released late Monday (May 16), is a forward-thinking document in many ways, strongly advocating the rights of individuals anywhere in the world to communicate via the Internet without government interference.
But in one part, it's eerily like "Dr. Strangelove." It states that America reserves the right to counter a cyberattack by any means necessary, including unrestrained military force — implying the use of nuclear weapons.
"When warranted, the United States will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would to any other threat to our country," the strategy paper says. "We reserve the right to use all necessary means — diplomatic, informational, military, and economic — as appropriate and consistent with applicable international law, in order to defend our Nation, our allies, our partners, and our interests."
Mikko Hypponen, chief researcher for the Finnish security firm F-Secure, immediately parsed what that meant, in plain English.
"So, basically, USA is saying 'Try to DDoS us and we'll launch missiles at you,'" he tweeted Tuesday morning.
(A distributed denial-of-service, or DDoS, attack is a simple but effective method, often used by amateur hackers, for bringing down a website.)
In an email to SecurityNewsDaily, Hypponen reaffirmed that view.
"Specifically, the document says that the U.S. will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace 'as we would to any other threat to our country,'" he said.
George Smith, a senior fellow with the Alexandria, Va. military and technology think tank GlobalSecurity.org, had a similar interpretation.
"I agree with Mr. Hypponen," he told SecurityNewsDaily. "You can frame or phrase it in a different way — the aim [is] to create the impression, through ambiguity, that the U.S. will resort to unreasonably scary escalation if someone who actually controls the levers decides in favor of it."
The Obama strategy paper does temper the scary talk with some caveats: "We will exhaust all options before military force whenever we can; will carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs of inaction; and will act in a way that reflects our values and strengthens our legitimacy, seeking broad international support whenever possible."
Whether or not to approach military action with caution is usually at the discretion of the president.
"The U.S. always reserves the right to overdo things. That's the legacy of the last 10 years," Smith said. "And to the world at large, it's viewed as a nation that sees every potential problem as a nail to be hit with the hammer of the military and/or security contractors."
So could Smith think of any possible cyberattack that would warrant military response? Blacking out the entire Eastern Seaboard? Opening the floodgates on the Hoover Dam?
"I'm not really in the business of making predictions, particularly here. Too many variables, and the intelligence on such matters is always fuzzy," Smith replied. "I'm going with a conservative 'no.'"