International law must adapt to cyber warfare

Whenever an online security concern arises in our lives, it is usually a matter of avoiding identity theft or credit card fraud while shopping online. In reality, state governments and organizations worldwide are currently engaged in security operations to protect their computer networks and infrastructure from attack.  A new dimension of warfare has emerged and become of significant relevance to contemporary security issues – cyber warfare.

The increased dependence modern infrastructure has on computer networks and the Internet means that conventions concerning the law of armed conflict must be extended to cyber warfare in order to continue to protect non-combatants.

According to security expert Richard A. Clark, author of Cyber War:The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, the concept of cyber warfare refers to actions by a state or non-state actors taken to infiltrate computer networks so as to inflict damage or disruption.

Whereas many military operations in the past focused on risking human lives and equipment to destroy enemy industrial and economic targets, the same objective can now be achieved with a computer terminal by infiltrating and attacking the computer systems that operate such technologies.
Certainly, it is not easy to impose direct physical harm through an Internet computer attack. At the same time, many systems that are vital to the functioning and well-being of non-combatant civilians like medical technologies, telecommunications, financial systems and power grids can be sabotaged by a successful cyber attack.

Contrary to skeptics who are quick to shoot down the issue of cyber warfare as over exaggerated and irrelevant, it is necessary to consider the significance of the modern integration of the Internet as a tool for military operations as it pertains to the regulation of armed conflict.

The ability for borders to be transcended in a matter of seconds through the global nature of the Internet is something that has tremendously advanced human society. This unprecedented global interconnectedness has also allowed for the manifestation of new ways of states attacking each other without having to make physical infringements on national sovereignty.

Rather than keeping the status quo by leaving such attacks to the jurisdiction of states’ respective domestic laws, the rapid proliferation of cyber warfare attacks worldwide dictate that there exist a set of legal guidelines higher than the nation state if non-combatants and infrastructure vital to human life are to be protected.

A recent example of how cyber attacks have advanced to the point where they have the potential to cause tangible harm to the systems of the state can be seen through the recent Stuxnet virus that had caused damage to systems at the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran.

With reports suggesting the complexity of the virus was such that it required the resources and technology of a nation-state, the case of the Stuxnet virus is a clear indication of how cyber warfare is evolving to a point where cyber attacks can cause damage on par with that of conventional military attacks regulated by the law of armed conflict.

It is necessary that the international community recognize the importance of collaboration on extensions of international law specific to cyber warfare. With recent submissions of proposals by the United States and Russia calling for cyber warfare “rules of engagement” at an international security conference, there appears to be a step in the right direction to address what could become an even more serious concern in the future.