The Pentagon has empowered the US Cyber Command to take a far more aggressive approach to defending the nation against cyber attacks, the New York Times reports. The shift in strategy could increase the risk of conflict with foreign states that sponsor malicious hacking groups. Until now, the Cyber Command has assumed a defensive posture, trying to counter attackers as they enter U.S. networks. In the few instances when it has gone on the offensive, particularly in trying to disrupt the online activities of the Islamic State and its recruiters, the results have been mixed. In the spring, as the Pentagon elevated the command’s status, it opened the door to nearly daily raids on foreign networks, seeking to disable cyber weapons before they can be unleashed.
The change in approach reflects a widespread view that the US has mounted an inadequate defense against the rising number of attacks. It was not clear how carefully the administration weighed the various risks involved if the plan is acted on in classified operations. Adversaries like Russia, China and North Korea, all nuclear-armed states, have been behind major cyber attacks, and the US has struggled with the question of how to avoid an unforeseen escalation as it wields its growing cyber arsenal. Another complicating factor is that taking action against an adversary often requires surreptitiously operating in the networks of an ally, like Germany. The new strategy envisions constant, disruptive “short of war” activities in foreign computer networks.