Offensive Cyber Operations and the Use of Force

Hostile actions against a computer system or network can take two forms.1 One form – a cyber attack – is destructive in nature. An example of such a hostile action is erasure by a computer virus resident on the hard disk of any infected computer. In this article, “cyber attack” refers to the use of deliberate actions and operations – perhaps over an extended period of time – to alter, disrupt, deceive, degrade, or destroy adversary computer systems or networks or the information and (or) programs resident in or transiting these systems or networks.2 Such effects on adversary systems and networks may also have indirect effects on entities coupled to or reliant on them. A cyber attack seeks to cause the adversary’s computer systems and networks to be unavailable or untrustworthy and therefore less useful to the adversary.

The second form – cyberexploitation – is nondestructive. An example is a computer virus that searches the hard disk of any infected computer and emails to the hostile party all files containing a credit card number. “Cyberexploitation” refers to the use of actions and operations – perhaps over an extended period of time – to obtain information that would otherwise be kept confidential and is resident on or transiting through an adversary’s computer systems or networks. Cyberexploitations are usually clandestine and conducted with the smallest possible intervention that still allows extraction of the information sought.3 They do not seek to disturb…

Lead Author

Herbert S. Lin
Dr. Herbert Lin is chief scientist at the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, National Research Council of the National Academies, where he has been study director of major projects on public policy and information technology.
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