As a former National Security Agency director, retired Gen. Michael Hayden has seen firsthand the sometimes nebulous realities of cyber-warfare.
During his keynote July 29 at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, Hayden discussed those realities, emphasizing the importance of clearly defining what cyber-war really is.
The question of what constitutes a cyber-attack and how the nation should respond has become an open topic of discussion during the Obama administration, which declared cyber-security a national security priority in 2009. But as reports of targeted attacks against smart grids and the disclosure of documents about the war in Afghanistan on WikiLeaks show, the line between cyber-espionage, attacks and other activities can sometimes be difficult to draw.
The term cyber-war is often thrown around, but distinctions must be made between activities meant to disrupt, degrade or destroy networks and other activity such as spying, argued Hayden, who also served as director of the CIA.
In June, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, who also heads up the U.S. Cyber Command, spoke about the need for the United States to have the proper framework in place to guide its responses to cyber-attacks.
"What the department is looking at [is], What are the standing rules of engagement that we have?" Alexander said at the time. "Do those comport with the laws, the responsibilities that we have? Can we clearly articulate those so that people know and expect what will happen? And I think we have to look at it in two different venues, what we're doing here in peacetime and what we need to do in wartime to support those units that are in combat."
In his Black Hat keynote, Hayden said for the military there have traditionally been four domains: ground, air, water and space. Cyber-space constitutes a fifth domain-one in which the advantage has been given to attackers, and there is almost nothing inherent in the domain that really plays to the defense.
God made four domains, the IT community made the last one, he said.
"God did a better a job," he quipped, drawing laughter from the audience.
Comparing the cyber-world to the "north German plain" as lacking natural barriers, Hayden said he believes the security community over time will fill in the metaphorical rivers and hills necessary to provide defenses for the cyber-landscape.
Looming large in that landscape is China, which has been the focus of numerous allegations of cyber-attacks against the United States in recent years.
Describing Chinese cyber-espionage as being "magnificent in its breadth," Hayden said the country should focus on strengthening its defenses.
"Without going into great detail, we're actually pretty good at this, and the Chinese are not the only ones doing it," he said.