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Pentagon exempts cyber weapons from collateral damage directive

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The Defense Department does not require developers of computer systems that launch cyber operations to implement the same safeguards required of traditional arms makers to prevent collateral damage.

A Pentagon mandate that autonomous weapons be built and tested so humans won’t lose control over them doesn’t apply to cyber weapons, documents state. The exemption gives military programmers more flexibility to introduce automation into command-and-control infrastructure for cyber operations, allowing military officials to launch computer campaigns more swiftly.

A directive, released Nov. 21, mandated that automated and semi-autonomous weaponry -- such as guided munitions that independently select targets -- must have human machine interfaces and “be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force.” The mandate called for “rigorous hardware and software verification and validation” to ensure that engagements could be terminated if not completed in a designated time frame. The goal is to minimize “unintended engagements,” the document states.

The Pentagon is permitting less human control over systems that deploy malware, exploits and mitigation tools, highlighting Defense’s focus on agile responses to computer threats. The document, signed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, explicitly states that the directive “does not apply to autonomous or semi-autonomous cyberspace systems for cyberspace operations.”

Defense has been pushing to integrate more autonomous capabilities into offensive computer systems, to meet the need to address threats in real time and make up for a lack of specialists that can carry out the exercises manually. This introduces a new threat that mistakes could go unchecked if computer glitches occur.

A central tenet of Plan X -- a Defense funding initiative to build command-and-control architecture that could manage and launch offensive tools -- involves identifying areas for automation and machine assistance in cyber operations. A newly released solicitation document asks respondents to address how a system can be built to allow planners to “mark instructions and actions that could be autonomously executed without operator monitoring” and seeks ideas on how “mission program logic is able to operate autonomously if communications are lost or degraded.”

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