By Travis Nicks
Center for International Maritime Security
Open borders are here. You likely crossed the Rio Grande before breakfast this morning and you’ll sneak into China before you sleep tonight. Trons travel through cyberspace ignoring all manners of political boundaries. Technology doesn’t care where Ukraine ends and Russia begins, or about an air gap between China and Taiwan. The policy of cyber does; it shouldn’t.
The national policy for cyber borders has been similar to conceptions of airspace: a vertical extension of geopolitical borders into the sky, or in the case of cyber, into the flowing infrastructure of the internet. If a plane is going to travel through the airspace of another country, that country has to agree to it or the flight has to go around. A long-range bomber aircraft might fly over a few countries for a raid on the other side. Packets or “trons” can travel continents’ worth of countries in a path of least resistance taking seconds. Furthermore, while borders stay the same, digital routes are totally dynamic. In order to prevent the unintended escalation of cyber operations, we must divorce the routes trons take from the effects they cause.
Fortunately, an existing policy framework already exists for an effects-based policy in a new frontier. We need to rise above the airspace mentality, and draw inspiration from satellites. Satellites travel freely over countries and cross borders with impunity. The international community agreed to a borderless framework in space in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.1 The orbit a satellite is on and its position relative to political borders are irrelevant when it takes an action that causes an effect. The effect is all that matters. The group at the effect’s end may protest or retaliate, but the country under the satellite at the time of the action will have no issue. If, for example, China shot down a Russian satellite while the satellite was over Mexico, Russia would have no issue with Mexico for having allowed the attack above them, because they don’t own that space. Instead, China would be responsible for causing the malign effect.
Picture: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michael A. Lantron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons