Technology and National Security Law Reflection Series Paper 5: Legality of Cyber Weapons Under International Law

Siddharth Gautam*

About the Author: The author is a 2020 graduate of National Law University, Delhi. 

Editor’s note: This post is part of the Reflection Series showcasing exceptional student essays from CCG-NLUD’s Seminar Course on Technology & National Security Law. In the present essay, the author reflects upon the following question: 

What are cyber weapons? Are they cyber weapons subject to any regulation under contemporary rules of international law? Explain with examples.

Introducing Cyber Weapons

In simple terms weapons are tools that harm humans or aim to harm the human body. In ancient times nomads used pointing tools to hunt and prey. Today’s world is naturally more advanced than that. In conventional methods of warfare, modern tools of weapons include rifles, grenades, artillery, missiles, etc. But in recent years the definition of warfare has changed immeasurably after the advancement of the internet and wider information and communication technologies (“ICT”). In this realm methods and ways of warfare are undergoing change. As internet technology develops we observe the advent/use of cyber weapons to carry out cyber warfare.

Cyber warfare through weapons that are built using technological know-how are low cost tools. Prominent usage of these tools is buttressed by wide availability of computer resources. Growth in the information technology (“IT”) industry and relatively cheap human resource markets have a substantial effect on the cost of cyber weapons which are capable of infiltrating other territories with relative ease. The aim of cyber weapons is to cause physical or psychological harm either by threat or material damage using computer codes or malware.

2007 Estonia Cyber Attack

For example during the Estonia –Russia conflict the conflict arose after the Soldier memorial was being shifted to the outskirts of Estonia. There was an uproar in the Russian speaking population over this issue. On 26th and 27th April, 2007 the capital saw rioting, defacing of property and numerous arrests.

On the same Friday cyber attacks were carried out using low tech methods like Ping, Floods and simple Denial-of-Service (DoS) attacks. Soon thereafter on 30th April, 2007 the scale and scope of the cyber attack increased sharply. Actors used botnets and were able to deploy large scale distributed denial of service (D-DoS) attacks to compromise 85 thousand computer systems and severely compromised the entire Estonian cyber and computer landscape. The incident caused widespread concerns/panic across the country.

Other Types of Cyber Weapons

Another prominent type of cyber weapon is HARM i.e. High-speed Anti Radiation missiles. It is a tactical air-to-surface anti radiation missile which can target electronic transmissions emitted from surface-to-air radar systems. These weapons are able to recognise the pulse repetition of enemy frequencies and accordingly search for the suitable target radar. Once it is visible and identified as hostile it will reach its radar antenna or transmitter target, and cause significant damage to those highly important targets. A prominent example of its usage is in the Syrian–Israel context. Israel launched cyber attacks against the Syrian Air defence system by blinding it. It attacked their Radar station in order not to display any information of Airplanes reaching their operators. 

A third cyber weapon worth analysing can be contextualised via the Stuxnet worm that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear programme by slowing the speed of its uranium reactors via fake input signals. It is alleged that the US and Israel jointly conducted this act of cyber warfare to damage Iran’s Nuclear programme.

In all three of the aforementioned cases, potential cyber weapons were used to infiltrate and used their own technology to conduct cyber warfare. Other types of cyber risks emerge from semantic attacks which are otherwise known as social engineering attacks. In such attacks perpetrators amend the information stored in a computer system and produce errors without the user being aware of the same. It specifically pertains to human interaction with information generated by a computer system, and the way that information may be interpreted or perceived by the user. These tactics can be used to extract valuable or classified information like passwords, financial details, etc. 

HACKERS (PT. 2) by Ifrah Yousuf. Licensed under CC BY 4.0.From CyberVisuals.org, a project of the Hewlett Foundation Cyber Initiative.

Applicable Landscape Under International Law

Now the question that attracts attention is whether there are any laws to regulate, minimise or stop the aforementioned attacks by the use of cyber weapons in International law? To answer this question we can look at a specific branch of Public international law; namely International Humanitarian law (“IHL”). IHL deals with armed conflict situations and not cyber attacks (specifically). IHL “seeks to moderate the conduct of armed conflict and to mitigate the suffering which it causes”. This statement itself comprises two major principles used in the laws of war.

Jus ad Bellum – the principle which determines whether countries have a right to resort to war through an armed conflict,

Jus in bellothe principle which governs the conduct of the countries’ soldiers/States itself which are engaging in war or an armed conflict

Both principles are subjected to the Hague and Geneva Conventions with Additional Protocol-1 providing means and ways as to how the warfare shall be conducted. Nine other treaties help safeguard and protect victims of war in armed conflict. The protections envisaged in the Hague and Geneva conventions are for situations concerning injuries, death, or in some cases  damage and/or destruction of property. If we analyse logically, cyber warfare may result in armed conflict through certain weapons, tools and techniques like Stuxnet, Trojan horse, Bugs, DSOS, malware HARM etc. The use of such weapons may ultimately yield certain results. Although computers are not a traditional weapon its use can still fulfil conditions which attract the applicability of provisions under the IHL.

Another principle of importance is Martens Clause. This clause says that even if some cases are not covered within conventional principles like humanity; principles relating to public conscience will apply to the combatants and civilians as derived from the established customs of International law. Which means that attacks shall not see the effects but by how they were employed

The Clause found in the Preamble to the Hague Convention IV of 1907 asserts that “even in cases not explicitly covered by specific agreements, civilians and combatants remain under the protection and authority of principles of international law derived from established custom, principles of humanity, and from the dictates of public conscience.” In other words, attacks should essentially be judged on the basis of their effects, rather than the means employed in the attack being the primary factor.

Article 35 says that “In any armed conflict, the right of the Parties to the conflict to choose methods or means of warfare is not unlimited. It is prohibited to employ weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering

The above clause means that the action of armed forces should be proportionate to the actual military advantage sought to be achieved. In simple words “indiscriminate attacks” shall not be undertaken to cause loss of civilian life and damage to civilians’ property in relation to the advantage.

Conclusion

Even though the terms of engagement vis-a-vis kinetic warfare is changing, the prospect of the potential of harm from cyber weapons could match the same. Instead of guns there are computers and instead of bullets there is malware, bugs, D-DOS etc. Some of the replacement of one type of weapon with another is caused by the fact that there are no explicit provisions in law that outlaw cyber warfare, independently or in war.

The principles detailed in the previous section must necessarily apply to cyber warfare because it limits the attacker’s ability to cause excessive collateral damage. On the same note cyber weapons are sui generis like the nuclear weapons that upshot in the significance to that of traditional weapons

Another parallel is that in cyber attacks often there are unnecessary sufferings and discrimination in proportionality and the same goes for  traditional armed conflict. Therefore, both should be governed by the principles of IHL. 

In short, if the cyber attacks produce results in the same way as kinetic attacks do, they will be subject to IHL.


*The views expressed in the blog are personal and should not be attributed to the institution.

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