Two experts sparred words Thursday at the Sanford School of Public Policy on whether computer hacking can be considered a form of warfare.
The debate, called “The Future of Cyber Warfare,” was arranged by the Duke chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society and pit Sam Liles, an associate professor of computer forensics at Purdue University, against Martin Libicki, a senior management scientist at the RAND corporation. Liles argued for the legitimacy of the grand theory of cyber warfare and Libicki argued against it.
Arguments made by both sides focused more on theory than real-life examples. Talking points centered on hypotheticals and comparisons between wartime intent and action. Although the debate did not result in a winner, the two debaters’ opening statements and rebuttals fueled a lively question and answer session about the next frontier of war.
“Cyber warfare at its simplest is basically me installing my instructions into your computer program,” Libicki said.
Libicki, who began the debate by undermining the role of cyber warfare as a conquering strategy, pointed out that as a mechanism of war, cyber-attacks are limited to a very specific target. He noted that cyber warfare, by definition, could only attack what is controlled by an electronic network, restricting its use in more primitive warfare.
“I can’t be subject to your cyber war if I don’t have a computer,” he said. “So cyber war, from a military point of view, is only effective against a digitized military.”
On the opposing side of the debate, Liles emphasized how cyber warfare has enabled militaries to develop certain strategies that place it in an offensive role.
“The idea of using intelligent products to find out how people act is enabled by cyber warfare, and that enablement can be weaponized,” Liles said. “It’s dual sided and all it takes is to figure out the evil use for it.”
Libicki pointed out that the nature of a cyber-attack is far more pernicious than a kinetic—a physical and violent—attack. Therefore, a cyber-attack alone could not win a war.
“You win a war by disarming the other guy and forcing him to give up,” Libicki said. “That probably requires kinetic components, which puts any cyber component of an attack into a support role.”
To counter, Liles noted that the intent and effect of cyber-attacks are to purposefully cause limited damage for a shorter time without having to rebuild damaged infrastructure.
“Half of what we’re doing in places like Afghanistan is helping to rebuild what we’ve already destroyed with other types of warfare,” he said.
Libicki closed his argument by stating that by nature, cyber warfare requires you to fool others, hide your intentions and strategies. Therefore, he does not see the United States adopting this type of warfare on a large scale.
“Ultimately, we fight our wars in the public light,” he said. “We usually don’t like to do too much in the shadows.”
After the debaters rebutted each other's arguments, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. Although some questions addressed gaps in rebuttal arguments, most of the audience members were more interested in what cyber warfare would do on a global scale.
“I thought the most interesting point was when they talked about China’s presence in cyber warfare,” said sophomore Emma Campbell-Mohn, vice president of Duke’s Alexander Hamilton Society.
Junior Anand Raghuraman found it surprising that America dominated the cyber warfare sphere.
“When we talk about [cyber warfare], our mind jumps to China and we imagine this hub of people who will hack everything, but the way [the debaters] talked about it was that the US is the best at this and has the most to gain from cyber war,” Raghuraman said.
Senior Daniel Strunk, president of Duke’s Alexander Hamilton Society and a columnist for The Chronicle, noted that the most interesting part of the debate was Libicki’s closing argument on America’s hesitation to adopt cyber warfare.
“The military is accountable to the people, but if what we do [for war] is done in the shadows, that poses the fundamental question of whether or not the democracy has the ability control cyber warfare,” Strunk said.
The event was one of many debates hosted the Alexander Hamilton Society, which is a non-partisan, not-for-profit national organization dedicated to fostering foreign policy debates on college campuses. Thursday’s debate directly advanced AHS’s larger mission of generating enlightened debate on contemporary issues, Strunk said.
The debate was attended by a mix of about 50 students, faculty and military fellows, and Strunk hopes that turnout will be just as good for future events, including a debate on October 29 addressing women entering combat roles in the military and a panel on Syria in November.