Agencies governmentwide over the next nine months must work together on guidelines for controlling the trade of cyberwar technology, under newly approved military legislation.
In programming, a cyberweapon often refers to malicious code that takes advantage of a software glitch unknown to developers, called a "zero day," to insert itself and manipulate data. For example, Stuxnet, an alleged U.S-Israeli cyberweapon, upended Iranian's nuclear program by exploiting a flaw in the country's centrifuge systems.
The concern in Congress is that war worms, let loose in the black market, are being sold to the public and overseas aggressors.
The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that lawmakers cleared on Thursday night requires that federal departments, with input from industry, devise "intelligence, law enforcement, and financial sanctions" mechanisms to "suppress the trade in cyber tools and infrastructure that are or can be used for criminal, terrorist, or military activities while preserving the ability of governments and the private sector to use such tools for legitimate purposes of self-defense."
This week’s bill also directs the Obama administration to address the problem at the international level – an effort that apparently already has begun.
Earlier this month, the Financial Times reported that 41 nations, including the United States, Russia and Germany, were close to a deal that would equate sensitive cyber technologies to traditional arms under one of the world's key agreements on weaponry export control. The revised terms for the Wassenaar Arrangement would include “new controls on complex surveillance and hacking software and cryptography," the newspaper reported.
In a seemingly complementary maneuver, the U.S. defense authorization package calls on the administration to craft "principles for controlling the proliferation of cyberweapons that can lead to expanded cooperation and engagement with international partners."
But Congress’ legislation does not define what a cyberweapon is, making it hard to compare the two initiatives.
By next fall, federal agencies must deliver recommendations for damping the proliferation of cyberweapons, including a draft statement of principles and a review of applicable legal authorities.
Some legal experts call the whole concept of cyber arms control impractical for a defense sector that isn’t limited to Boeing-size systems integrators.
"In the physical world, the production of weaponry is restricted by the need for an industrial base. In cyberspace, weapons are bits and bytes and produced as intellectual property,” Paul Rosenzweig, a Homeland Security Department official during the George W. Bush administration, wrote on the Lawfare Blog in July. “With such an ease of manufacture (comparatively) and a global market, there seems to be precious little prospect for an arms-control type approach to eliminating the trade. The market for zero-day exploits will, I think, grow exponentially in the years to come.”
Cyberweapon vendor and federal contractor Endgame Systems reportedly offers customers 25 zero-day exploits a year for $2.5 million.
Rosenzweig called Congress’ proposal for cyberweapon nonproliferation "notably off-target," adding that "while the objective is certainly noble, I suspect the effort will be relatively unsuccessful."