Skip Navigation

Close and don't show again.

Your browser is out of date.

You may not get the full experience here on National Journal.

Please upgrade your browser to any of the following supported browsers:

Yes, Cyberattacks Are Perfectly Legal Under the Laws of War Yes, Cyberattacks Are Perfectly Legal Under the Laws of War

NEXT :
This ad will end in seconds
 
Close X

Not a member? Learn More »

Forget Your Password?

Don't have an account? Register »

Reveal Navigation
 

 

Tech

Yes, Cyberattacks Are Perfectly Legal Under the Laws of War

(bikerock/flickr)()

photo of Brian Fung
March 21, 2013

What’s the fastest way to annoy someone who works in national security? Just say "cyberwarfare" on repeat and watch them combust. The term is meaningless in the worst way—it puts the imagination into paranoid overdrive and is not limited by any legal definitions. All the rules we’ve got on armed conflict today apply to ye olde bombs and bullets, not viruses and botnets.

This makes a recent study from a group of NATO experts very, very welcome. Called the Tallinn Manual, it seeks to adapt the existing laws of war to cyberspace, laying down 95 new ideas over 282 pages. Many of them are just common-sense extensions of current international principles: According to one rule, cyberwarriors must take care not to hit the same targets that are off-limits to conventional forces.

These include civilians, albeit with a crucial caveat: If you’re a civilian who’s decided to join the fight, you become a legitimate target even if you aren’t affiliated with a government or a military.

 

“Consider an international armed conflict in which civilian patriotic hackers independently undertake offensive cyber operations against the enemy’s forces,” the report said. In this case, your civilian status could be a liability, in that you wouldn’t enjoy the rights—like prisoner-of-war privileges—that come with being a formal combatant in the conflict. Under these cyber rules, independent hacker groups like Anonymous would almost certainly fall into this category.

Here’s another precedent-setting moment, uncovered by The Guardian:

    The manual suggests "proportionate counter-measures" against online attacks carried out by a state are permitted. Such measures cannot involve the use of force, however, unless the original cyber-attack resulted in death or significant damage to property.

Countermeasures are typically reactive—airplanes, for example, drop flares or chaff to confuse incoming missiles. But, in cyberspace, it could mean a lot more. Since attacks can happen in seconds, there’s often little time to react, so some have taken to suggesting offensive countermeasures that would hack back, maybe even without a human’s say-so. That raises some scary possibilities—an automated exchange of cyberweapons that spirals out of control, for one. The expert manual prohibits automated retribution, but that likely won’t stop a country that’s convinced it needs the capability from getting it.

The Geneva Conventions and other laws of armed conflict may be decades old at this point, but they're still providing the basis for new legal innovations. There’s a lot more to read in the full report.

LIKE THIS STORY? Sign up for Tech Edge

Sign up for our daily newsletter and stay on top of tech coverage.

Sign up form for Tech Edge
Job Board
Search Jobs
Digital and Content Manager, E4C
American Society of Civil Engineers | New York, NY
PRODUCT REVIEW ENGINEER
American Society of Civil Engineers | CA
Neighborhood Traffic Safety Services Intern
American Society of Civil Engineers | Bellevue, WA
United Technologies Research Fellow
American Society of Civil Engineers | New York, NY
Process Engineering Co-op
American Society of Civil Engineers | Conshohocken, PA
Electrical Engineer Co-op
American Society of Civil Engineers | Findlay, OH
Application Engineer/Developer INTERN - Complex Fluids
American Society of Civil Engineers | Brisbane, CA
Application Engineer - Internships CAE/CFD Metro Detroit
American Society of Civil Engineers | Livonia, MI
Chief Geoscientist
American Society of Civil Engineers
Application Engineer - Internships CAE/CFD Metro Boston
American Society of Civil Engineers | Burlington, MA
Professional Development Program Engineer
American Society of Civil Engineers | Farmington Hills, MI
Civil Enginering Intern - Water/Wastewater/Site-Development
American Society of Civil Engineers | Sacramento, CA
Staff Accountant
American Society of Civil Engineers | Englewood, CO
Biomedical Service Internship Position
American Society of Civil Engineers | Flint, MI
 
Comments
comments powered by Disqus