As the saga of alleged hacking of US elections by the Russians stumbles on, one big question that begs answering is that if the USA cannot precisely and quickly pinpoint the origins of a Cyber attack then who else in the world can?
Whether it is the Snowden disclosures or the latest leak of NSAs hacking tools; it is now beyond doubt that the US and its close allies (the so called Five Eyes) are running an unparalleled global surveillance regime in cyberspace. The US also indirectly controls key segments of the Internet core infrastructure.
With such resources at its disposal it should have been possible by now to arrive at a simple Yes/No answer to the Russian hacking question, especially since it is their own countrymen who are demanding this answer. And if the US cannot provide conclusive answers to its own citizens whether their sovereignty has been compromised or not, then it basically conveys to the world that it is impossible for any country to conclusively attribute cyber attacks.
Let us look at the multiple ramifications of this spectacle. If we believe that the Russians did hack into the US democracy and the US is unable to attribute it, two conclusions are obvious.
Firstly, it severely dents any attempts to evolve a consensus on global cyber norms (which ironically are led by NATO). Attribution is one of the fundamental problems of any cyber norms. Time is also a critical factor. If a cyber attack takes months to identify and results still remain inconclusive; then it is meaningless to talk of any International Laws on Cyber Warfare to be abided by much less empowered nations.
Secondly, the Americans lost thousands of lives and spent over a trillion dollars bringing about a friendly regime change in Iraq. If the Russians have achieved a similar regime change without bloodshed and at negligible cost then this is the most transformational innovation in modern warfare since the nuclear bomb! Information Warfare emerges as a distinct alternative to conventional war. The incentive to develop and stockpile cyber weapons gets a big boost. A cyber arms race becomes inevitable.
On the other hand, if we believe that the Russians did not hack into the US elections and the US is merely name dropping, then an entirely different conclusion can be drawn. The US has in the past indulged in cyber gun rattling and threatened a conventional military response in retaliation to cyber attacks. If the US is blaming Russians without any concrete evidence – there are eerie similarities to WMDs that were never found in Iraq. The credibility of US and its allies is already very low when it comes to cyberspace.
To conclude, the failure of US to attribute the Russian hacking will have a major bearing on evolution of global cyber norms and on the global cyber arms race. The global community must simultaneously remain extremely wary of hidden American agendas. An Iraq like invasion of any country on false cyber pretexts is even more undesirable then a cyber arms race.