Cyberspace and International Law: Taking Stock of Ongoing Discussions at the OEWG

This post is authored by Sharngan Aravindakshan


The second round of informal meetings in the Open-Ended Working Group on the Use of ICTs in the Context of International Security is scheduled to be held from today (29th September) till 1st October, with the agenda being international law.

At the end of the OEWG’s second substantive session in February 2020, the Chairperson of the OEWG released an “initial pre-draft” (Initial Pre-Draft) of the OEWG’s report, for stakeholder discussions and comments. The Initial Pre-Draft covers a number of issues on cyberspace, and is divided into the following:

  1. Section A (Introduction);
  2. Section B (Existing and Potential Threats);
  3. Section C (International Law);
  4. Section D (Rules, Norms and Principles for Responsible State Behaviour);
  5. Section E (Confidence-building Measures);
  6. Section F (Capacity-building);
  7. Section G (Regular Institutional Dialogue); and
  8. Section H (Conclusions and Recommendations).

In accordance with the agenda for the coming informal meeting in the OEWG, this post is a brief recap of this cyber norm making process with a focus on Section C, i.e., the international law section of the Initial Pre-Draft and States’ comments to it.

What does the OEWG Initial Pre-Draft Say About International Law?

Section C of the Initial Pre-Draft begins with a chapeau stating that existing obligations under international law, in particular the Charter of the United Nations, are applicable to State use of ICTs. The chapeau goes on to state that “furthering shared understandings among States” on how international law applies to the use of ICTs is fundamental for international security and stability. According to the chapeau, exchanging views on the issue among States can foster this shared understanding.

The body of Section C records that States affirmed that international law, including the UN Charter, is applicable to the ICT environment. It particularly notes that the principles of the UN Charter such as sovereign equality, non-intervention in internal affairs of States, the prohibition on the threat or use of force, human rights and fundamental freedoms apply to cyberspace. It also mentions that specific bodies of international law such as international humanitarian law (IHL), international human rights law (IHRL) and international criminal law (ICL) as applicable as well. Section C also records that “States underscored that international humanitarian law neither encourages militarization nor legitimizes conflict in any domain”, without mentioning which States did so.

Significantly, Section C of the Initial Pre-Draft also notes that a view was expressed in the discussions that “existing international law, complemented by the voluntary, non-binding norms that reflect consensus among States” is “currently sufficient for addressing State use of ICTs”. According to this view, it only remains for a “common understanding” to be reached on how the already agreed normative framework could apply and be operationalized. At the same time, the counter-view expressed by some other States is also noted in Section C, that “there may be a need to adapt existing international law or develop a new instrument to address the unique characteristics of ICTs.”

This view arises from the confusion or lack of clarity on how existing international law could apply to cyberspace and includes but is not limited to questions on thresholds for use of force, armed attacks and self-defence, as well as the question of applicability of international humanitarian law to cyberspace. Section C goes on to note that in this context, proposals were made for the development of a legally binding instrument on the use of ICTs by States. Again, the States are not mentioned by name. Additionally, Section C notes a third view which proposed a “politically binding commitment with regular meetings and voluntary State reporting”. This was proposed as a middle ground between the first view that existing international law was sufficient and the second view that new rules of international law were required in the form of a legally binding treaty. Developing a “common approach to attribution at the technical level” was also discussed as a way of ensuring greater accountability and transparency.

With respect to the international law portion, the Initial Pre-Draft proposed recommendations including the creation of a global repository of State practice and national views in the application of international law as well as requesting the International Law Commission to undertake a study of national views and practice on how international law applies in the use of ICTs by States.

What did States have to say about Section C of the Initial Pre-Draft?

In his letter dated 11 March 2020, the Chairperson opened the Initial Pre-Draft for comments from States and other stakeholders. A total of 42 countries have submitted comments, excluding the European Union (EU) and the Non Aligned Movement (NAM), both of which have also submitted comments separately from their member States. The various submissions can be found here. Not all States’ submissions have comments specific to Section C, the international law portion. But it is nevertheless worthwhile examining the submissions of those States that do. India had also submitted comments which can be found here. However, these are no longer available on the OEWG website and appear to have been taken down.

International Law and Cyberspace

Let’s start with what States have said in answer to the basic question of whether existing international law applies to cyberspace and if so, whether its sufficient to regulate State-use of ICTs. A majority of States have answered in the affirmative and this list includes the Western Bloc led by the US including Canada, France, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, and the United Kingdom, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Colombia, South Africa, Mexico and Uruguay. While Singapore has affirmed that international law, in particular, the UN Charter, applies to cyberspace, it is silent on whether its current form is sufficient to regulate State action in cyberspace.

Several States, however, are of the clear view that international law as it exists is insufficient to regulate cyberspace or cannot be directly applied to cyberspace. These States have identified a “legal vacuum” in international law vis-à-vis cyberspace and call for new rules in the form of a binding treaty. This list includes China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Russia and Zimbabwe. Indonesia, in its turn, has stated that “automatic application” of existing law without examining the context and unique nature of activities in cyberspace should be avoided since “practical adjustment and possible new interpretations are needed”, and the “gap of the ungoverned issues in cyberspace” also needs to be addressed.

NAM has stated that the UN Charter applies, but has also noted the need to “identify possible gaps” that can be addressed through “furthering the development of international rules”. India’s earlier uploaded statement had expressed the view that although the applicability of international law had been agreed to, there are “differences in the structure and functioning of cyberspace, including complicated jurisdictional issues” and that “gaps in the existing international laws in their applicability to cyberspace” need examining. This statement also spoke of “workable modifications to existing laws and exploring the needs of, if any, new laws”.

Venezuela has stated that “the use of ICTs must be fully consistent with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and international law”, but has also stated that “it is necessary to clarify that International Public Law cannot be directly applicable to cyberspace”, leaving its exact views on the subject unclear.

International Humanitarian Law and Cyberspace

The Initial Pre-Draft’s view on the applicability of IHL to cyberspace has also become a point of contention for States. States supporting its applicability include Brazil, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Uruguay. India is among the supporters. Some among these like Estonia, Germany and Switzerland have called for the specific principles of humanity, proportionality, necessity and distinction to be included in the report.

States including China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Russia, Venezuela and Zimbabwe are against applying IHL, with their primary reason being that it will promote “militarization” of cyberspace and “legitimize” conflict. According to China, we should be “extremely cautious against any attempt to introduce use of force in any form into cyberspace,… and refrain from sending wrong messages to the world.” Russia has acerbically stated that to say that IHL can apply “to the ICT environment in peacetime” is “illogical and contradictory” since “IHL is only applied in the context of a military conflict while currently the ICTs do not fit the definition of a weapon”.

Second level of detail on these questions, especially concerning specific principles including sovereignty, non-intervention, threat or use of force, armed attack and inherent right of self-defence, is scarce in States’ comments, beyond whether they apply to cyberspace. Zimbabwe has mentioned in its submission that these principles do apply, as has NAM. Cuba, as it did in the 2017 GGE, has taken the stand that the inherent right to self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter cannot be automatically applied to cyberspace. Cuba also stated that it cannot be invoked to justify a State responding with conventional attacks. The US has also taken the view it expressed in the 2017 GGE, that if States’ obligations such as refraining from the threat or use of force are to be mentioned in the report, it should also contain States’ rights, namely, the inherent right to self-defence in Article 51.

Austria has categorically stated that the violation of sovereignty is an internationally wrongful act if attributable to a State. But other States’ comments are broader and do not address the issue of sovereignty at this level. Consider Indonesia’s comments, for instance, where it has simply stated that it “underlines the importance of the principle of sovereignty” and that the report should as well. For India’s part, its earlier uploaded statement approached the issue of sovereignty from a different angle. It stated that the “territorial jurisdiction and sovereignty are losing its relevance in contemporary cyberspace discourse” and went on to recommend a “new form of sovereignty which would be based on ownership of data, i.e., the ownership of the data would be that of the person who has created it and the territorial jurisdiction of a country would be on the data which is owned by its citizens irrespective of the place where the data physically is located”. On the face of it, this comment appears to relate more to the conflict of laws with respect to the transborder nature of data rather than any principle of international law.

The Initial Pre-Draft mentioning the need for a “common approach” for attribution also drew sharp criticism. France, Germany, Italy, Nicaragua, Russia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom have all expressed the view that attribution is a “national” or “sovereign” prerogative and should be left to each State. Iran has stated that addressing a common approach for attribution is premature in the absence of a treaty. Meanwhile, Brazil, China and Norway have supported working towards a common approach for attribution. This issue has notably seen something of a re-alignment of divided State groups.

International Human Rights Law and Cyberspace

States’ comments to Section C also pertain to its language on IHRL with respect to ICT use. Austria, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland have called for greater emphasis on human rights and its applicability in cyberspace, especially in the context of privacy and freedoms of expression, association, and information. France has also included the “issues of protection of personal data” in this context. Switzerland has interestingly linked cybersecurity and human rights as “complementary, mutually reinforcing and interdependent”. Ireland and Uruguay’s comments also specify that IHRL apply.

On the other hand, Russia’s comments make it clear that it believes there is an “overemphasis” on human rights law, and it is not “directly related” to international peace and security. Surprisingly, the UK has stated that issues concerning data protection and internet governance are beyond the OEWG’s mandate, while the US comments are silent on the issue. While not directly referring to international human rights law, India’s comments had also mentioned that its concept of data ownership based sovereignty would reaffirm the “universality of the right to privacy”.

Role of the International Law Commission

The Initial Pre-Draft also recommended requesting the International Law Commission (through the General Assembly) to “undertake a study of national views and practice on how international law applies in the use of ICTs by States”. A majority of States including Canada, Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States have expressed clearly that they are against sending the issue to the ILC as it is too premature at this stage, and would also be contrary to the General Assembly resolutions referring the issue to the OEWG and the GGE.

With respect to the Initial Pre-Draft’s recommendation for a repository of State practices on the application of international law to State-use of ICTs, support is found in comments submitted by Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden and Thailand. While Japan, South Africa and India (comments taken down) have qualified their views by stating these contributions should be voluntary, the EU has sought clarification on the modalities of contributing to the repository so as to avoid duplication of efforts.

Other Notable Comments

Aside from the above, States have raised certain other points of interest that may be relevant to the ongoing discussion on international law. The Czech Republic and France have both drawn attention to the due diligence norm in cyberspace and pointed out that it needs greater focus and elaboration in the report.

In its comments, Colombia has rightly pointed out that discussions should centre around “national views” as opposed to “State practice”, since it is difficult for State practice to develop when “some States are still developing national positions”. This accurately highlights a significant problem in cyberspace, namely the scarcity of State practice on account of unclarity in national positions. It holds true for most developing nations, including but not limited to India.

On a separate issue, the UK has made an interesting, but implausible proposal. The UK in its comments has proposed that “States acknowledge military capabilities at an organizational level as well as provide general information on the legal and oversight regimes under which they operate”. Although it has its benefits, such as reducing information asymmetries in cyberspace, it is highly unlikely that States will accept an obligation to disclose or acknowledge military capabilities, let alone any information on the “legal and oversight regimes under which they operate”. This information speaks to a State’s military strength in cyberspace, and while a State may comment on the legality of offensive cyber capabilities in abstract, realpolitik deems it unlikely that it will divulge information on its own capabilities. It is worth noting here that the UK has acknowledged having offensive cyber capabilities in its National Cyber Security Strategy 2016 to 2021.

What does the Revised Pre-Draft Say About International Law?

The OEWG Chair, by a letter dated 27 May 2010, notified member States of the revised version of the Initial Pre-Draft (Revised Pre-Draft). He clarified that the “Recommendations” portion had been left changed. On perusal, it appears Section C of the Revised Pre-Draft is almost entirely unchanged as well, barring the correction of a few typographical errors. This is perhaps not surprising, given the OEWG Chair made it clear in his letter that he still expected “guidance from Member States for further revisions to the draft”.

CCG will track States’ comments to the Revised Pre-Draft as well, as and when they are submitted by member States.

International Law and Cyberspace: Three Different Conversations

With the establishment of the OEWG, the UN GGE was no longer the only multilateral conversation on cyberspace and international law among States in the UN. Of course, both the OEWG and the GGE are about more than just the questions of whether and how international law applies in cyberspace – they also deal with equally important, related issues of capacity-building, confidence building measures and so on in cyberspace. But their work on international law is still extremely significant since they offer platforms for States to express their views on international law and reach consensus on contentious issues in cyberspace. Together, these two forums form two important streams of conversation between States on international law in cyberspace.

At the same time, States are also separately articulating and releasing their own positions on international law and how it applies to cyberspace. Australia, France, Germany, Iran, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States have all indicated their own views on how international law applies to cyberspace, independent of both the GGE and the OEWG, with Iran being the latest State to do so. To the extent they engage with each other by converging and diverging on some issues such as sovereignty in cyberspace, they form the third conversation among States on international law. Notably, India has not yet joined this conversation.

It is increasingly becoming clear that this third conversation is taking place at a particularly level of granularity, not seen so far in the OEWG or the GGE. For instance, the raging debate on whether sovereignty in international law in cyberspace is a rule entailing consequences for violation or is merely a principle that only gives rise to binding rules such as the prohibitions on use of force or intervention, has so far been restricted to this third conversation. In contrast, States’ comments to the OEWG’s Initial Pre-Draft have indicated that discussions in the OEWG appear to still centre around the broad question of whether and how international law applies to cyberspace. Only Austria mentioned in its comments to the Initial Pre-Draft that it believed sovereignty was a rule the violation of which would be an internationally wrongful act. The same applies for the GGE, since although it was able to deliver consensus reports on international law applying to cyberspace, it also cannot claim to have dealt with these issues at level of specificity beyond this.

This variance in the three conversations shows that some States are racing way ahead of others in their understanding of how international law applies to cyberspace, and these States are so far predominantly Western and developed, with the exception of Iran. Colombia’s comment to the OEWG’s Initial Pre-Draft is a timely reminder in this regard, that most States are still in the process of developing their national positions. The interplay between these three conversations around international law and cyberspace will be interesting to observe.

The Centre for Communication Governance’s comments to the Initial Pre-Draft can be accessed here.

On Cyber Weapons and Chimeras

This post has been authored by Gunjan Chawla and Vagisha Srivastava

Closeup of laptop computer keyboard, and gun bullets, representing the concept of cyber attacks, Journalism, terrorism, support for terrorists, click enter

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” says Shakespeare’s Dick the Butcher to Jack Cade, who leads fellow conspirators in the popular rebellion against Henry VI.

The same cliché may as well have been the opening line of Pukhraj Singh’s response to our last piece, which joins his earlier pieces heavily burdened with thinly veiled disdain for lawyers poking their noses into cyber operations. In his eagerness to establish code as law, he omits not only the universal professional courtesy of getting our names right, but also a basic background check on authors he so fervently critiques – only one of whom is in fact a lawyer and the other, an early career technologist.

In this final piece in our series on offensive cyber capabilities, we take exception to Singh’s misrepresentation of our work and hope to redirect the conversation back to the question raised by our first piece – what is the difference between ‘cyber weapons’ and offensive cyber capabilities, if any? Our readers may recall from our first piece in the series Does India have offensive cyber capabilities that Lt Gen Pant had in an interview to Medianama, denied any intent on part of the Government of India to procure ‘cyber weapons’. However, certain amendments inserted in export control regulations by the DGFT suggested the presence of offensive cyber capabilities in India’s cyber ecosystem. Quoting Thomas Rid from Cyber War Will Not Take Place,

“these conceptual considerations are not introduced here as a scholarly gimmick. Indeed theory shouldn’t be left to scholars; theory needs to become personal knowledge, conceptual tools used to comprehend conflict, to prevail in it, or to prevent it.”

While lawyers and strategists working in the cyber policy domain admittedly, still have a lot to learn from those with personal knowledge of the conduct of hostilities in cyberspace, deftly obscured by a labyrinth of regulations and rapidly changing rules of engagement, the question of nomenclature remains an important one. The primary reason for this is that the taxonomy of cyber operations has significant implications for the obligations incumbent on States and State actors under international as well as domestic law.

A chimeral critique

Singh’s most seriously mounted objection in his piece is to our assertion that ‘cyber capabilities’ and ‘cyber operations’ are not synonymous, just as ‘arms’ and ‘armed attack’, or ‘weapons’ and ‘war’ are distinct concepts. However, a wilful misunderstanding of our assertion that cyber capabilities and cyber operations are not interchangeable terms does not foster any deeper understanding of the legal or technical ingredients of a ‘cyber operation’–irrespective of whether it is offensive, defensive or exploitative in intent and design.

The central idea remains, that a capability is wielded with the intent of causing a particular effect (which may or may not be identical to the actual effect resulting from the cyber operation). A recent report by the Belfer Center at Harvard on a ‘National Cyber Power Index’, which views a nation’s cyber power as a function of its intent and capability, also seems to support this position. Certainly, the criteria and methodology of assessment remain open to debate and critique from academics as well as practitioners, and this debate needs to inform our legal position and strategic posture (again, the two are not synonymous) as to the legality of developing offensive cyber capabilities in international as well as domestic law.

Second, in finding at least one of us guilty of a ‘failure of imagination’, Singh steadfastly advocates the view that cyber (intelligence) operators like himself are better off unbounded by legal restraint of their technical prowess, functioning in a Hobbesian (virtual) reality where code is law and technological might makes right. It is thus unsurprising that Singh in what is by his own admission a ‘never to be published manuscript’, seems to favour practices normalized by the United States’ military doctrine, regardless of their dubious legality.

Third, in criticizing lawyers’ use of analogical reasoning—which to Singh, has become ‘the bane of cyber policy’—he conveniently forgets that for those of us who were neither born in the darkness of covert cyber ops, nor moulded by it, analogies are a key tool to understand unfamiliar concepts by drawing upon learnings from more familiar concepts. Indeed, it has even been argued that analogy is the core of human cognition.

Navigating a Taxing Taxonomy

Writing in 2012 with Peter McBurney, Rid postulates that cyber weapons may span a wide spectrum, from generic but low-potential tools to specific high potential weaponry – and may be viewed as a subset of ‘weapons’. In treating cyberweaponry as a subset of conventional weaponry, their underlying assumption is that the (cyber) weapon is being developed and/or deployed with ‘the aim of threatening or causing physical, functional or mental harm to structures, systems or living beings’. This also supports our assertion that intent is a key element to planning and launching a cyber operation, but not for the purposes of classifying a cyber operation as an ‘armed attack’ under international law. However, it is important to mention that Rid considers ‘cyber war’ as an extremely problematic and dangerous concept, one that is far narrower than the concept of ‘cyber weapons’.

Singh laments that without distinguishing between cyber techniques and effects, we fall into ‘a quicksand of lexicon, taxonomies, hypotheses, assumptions and legalese’. He considers the OCOs/DCOs classification too ‘simplistic’ in comparison to the CNA/CND/CNE framework. Even if the technological underpinnings of cyber exploits (for intelligence gathering) and cyber attacks (for damage, disruption and denial) have not changed over the years, as Singh argues—the change in terminology/vocabulary cannot be attributed to ‘ideology’. This change is a function of a complete reorganization and restructuring of the American national security establishment to permit greater agility and freedom of action in rules of hostile engagement by the military in cyberspace.

Unless the law treats cognitive or psychological effects of cyber operations, (eg. those depicted in the Social Dilemma or the Great Hack, or even in doxing classified documents) as harm that is ‘comparable’ to physical damage/destruction, ‘cyber offence’ will not graduate to the status of a ‘cyber weapon’. For the time being, an erasure of the physical/psychological dichotomy appears extremely unlikely. If the Russian and Chinese playbook appears innovative in translating online activity to offline harm, it is because of an obvious conflation between a computer systems-centric cyber security model and the state-centric information security model that values guarding State secrets above all else, and benefits from denying one’s adversary the luxury of secrecy in State affairs.

The changing legal framework and as a corollary, the plethora of terminologies employed around the conduct of cyber operations by the United States run parallel to the evolving relationship between its intelligence agencies and military institutions.

The US Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) was first created in 2008, but was incubated for a long time by the NSA under a peculiar arrangement established in 2009, whereby the head of the NSA was also the head of the US CYBERCOM, with a view to leverage the vastly superior surveillance capabilities of the NSA at the time. This came to be known as a ‘dual-hat arrangement’, a moniker descriptive of the double role played by the same individual simultaneously heading an intelligence agency as well as a military command. Simply put, cyber infrastructure raised for the purposes of foreign surveillance and espionage was but a stepping stone to building cyber warfare capabilities. Through a presidential memorandum in 2017, President Trump directed the Secretary of Defense to establish the US Cyber Command as a Unified Combatant Command, elevating its status from a sub-unit of the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM).

An important aspect of the ‘restructuring’ we refer to are two Presidential directives – one from 2012 and another from 2018. In October 2012, President Obama signed the Presidential Policy Directive- 20 2012 (PPD). It was classified as Top Secret at the time, but leaked by Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post a month later. The PPD defined US cyber policy, including terms such as ‘Offensive Cyber Effects Operations’ (OCEO) and ‘Defensive Cyber Effects Operations’ (DCEO) and mandated that all cyber operations were to be executed with the explicit authorization from the President. In August, 2018, Congress passed a military-authorization bill that delegated some cyber operations to be authorized by the Secretary of Defense. It is relevant that ‘clandestine military activity (covert operations) or operations in cyberspace are now considered a traditional military activity under this statute, bringing it under the DoD’s authority. The National Security Presidential Memorandum 13 (NSPM) on offensive cyber operations signed by President Trump around the same time, although not available in the public domain, has reportedly further eased procedural requirements for Presidential approval in certain cyber operations.

Thus, if we overcome apprehensions about the alleged ‘quicksand of lexicon, taxonomies, hypotheses, assumptions and legalese,’ we can appreciate the crucial role played by these many terms in the formulation of clear operational directives. They serve an important role in the conduct of cyber operations by (1) delineating the chain of command for the conduct of military cyber operations for the purposes of domestic law and (2) bringing the conversation on cyber operations outside the don’t-ask-don’t-tell realm of ‘espionage’, enabling lawyers and strategists to opine on their legality and legitimacy, or lack thereof, as military operations for the purposes of international law – much to Singh’s apparent disappointment. To observers more closely acquainted with the US playbook on international law, the inverse is also true, where operational imperatives have necessitated a re-formulation of terms that may convey any sense of illegality or impropriety in military conduct (as opposed to the conduct of intelligence agencies, which is designed for ‘plausible deniability’ in case of an adverse outcome).

We relied on the latest (June 2020) version of JP 1-02 for the current definition of ‘offensive cyber operations’ in American warfighting doctrine. We can look to earlier versions of the DoD Dictionary to trace back the terms relevant to CNOs (including CAN, CNE and CND). This exercise makes it quite apparent that the contemporary terminologies and practices are all rooted in (covert) cyber intelligence operations, which the (American) law and policy around cyberspace bends backwards to accommodate and conceal. That leading scholars have recently sought to frame ‘cyber conflict as an intelligence contest’ further supports this position.

  • 2001 to 2007 – ‘cyber counterintelligence’ as the only relevant military activity in cyberspace (even though a National Military Strategy for Cyberspace Operations existed in 2006)
    • 2008: US CYBERCOM created as a sub-unit of US STRATCOM
    • 2009 – Dual Hat arrangement between NSA and CYBERCOM
    • 2010– US CYBERCOM achieves operational capability on May 21; CNA/CNE enter the DoD lexicon
    • 2012 – PPD 20 issued by President Obama
    • 2013 – JP 3-12 published as doctrinal guidance from the DoD to plan, execute and assess cyber operations
    • By 2016 – DoD dictionary defines ‘cyberspace operations’, DCOs, OCOs, (but not cyberspace exploitation) relying on JP 3-12
    • 2018 – NSPDM 13 signed by President Trump
    • 2020 – ‘cyberspace attack’ ‘cyberspace capability’, ‘cyberspace defence’, ‘cyberspace exploitation’, ‘cyberspace operations’, cyberspace security, cybersecurity as well as OCOs/DCOs are defined terms in the Dictionary

Even as JP 3-12 remains an important document from the standpoint of military operations, reliance on this document is inapposite, even irrelevant for the purposes of agencies responsible for cyber intelligence operations. In fact, JP 3-12 is also not helpful to explain the whys and hows of the evolution in the DoD vocabulary. This is a handy guide to decode the seemingly cryptic numbering of DoD’s Joint Publications.

Waging Cyber War without Cyber ‘Weapons’?

It is relevant to mention that none of the documents referenced above, including JP 3-12, make any mention of the term ‘cyber weapon’. A 2010 memorandum from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, clearly identifies CNAs as a form of ‘offensive fire’ – analogous to weapons that are ‘fired’ upon a commander’s order, as well as a key component of Information Operations.

The United States’ Department of Defense in its 2011 Defense Cyberspace Policy Report to Congress acknowledged that “the interconnected nature of cyberspace poses significant challenges for applying some of the legal frameworks developed for physical domains” and observed that “there is currently no international consensus regarding the definition of a cyber weapon”.

A plausible explanation as to why the US Government refrains from using the term ‘cyber weapons’ is found in this report, as it highlights certain legal issues in the transporting cyber ‘weapons’ across the Internet through the infrastructure owned and/or located in neutral third countries without obtaining the equivalent of ‘overflight rights’, and suggests ‘a principled application of existing norms to be developed along with partners and allies’. A resolution to this legal problem highlighted in the DoD’s report to Congress is visible in the omission of the term ‘cyber weapon’ in legal and policy frameworks altogether, only to be replaced by ‘cyber capabilities’.

We can find the rationale for and implications of this pivot in the work of Professor Michael Schmitt’s 2019 paper, wherein he argues in the context of applicable international law – contrary to the position he espoused in the Tallinn Manual –that ‘cyber capabilities’ cannot meet the definition of a weapon or means of warfare, but that cyber operations may qualify as methods of warfare. This interpretation permits ‘cyber weapons’ in the garb of ‘cyber capabilities’ to circumvent at least three obligations under the Law of Armed Conflict/International Humanitarian Law.

First, is the requirement for legal review of weapons under Article 36 of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions (an issue Col. Gary Brown has also written about) and second, is taking precautions in attack. Third and most important, the argument that cyber weapons cannot be classified as munitions also has the consequence of depriving neutral States of their sovereign right to refuse permission of the transportation of weapons (or in this case, transmission of weaponised cyber capabilities) through their territory (assuming that this is technically possible).

So, in a sense, if we do not treat offensive cyber capabilities, or ‘cyber weapons’ as analogous in international law to conventional weapons normally associated with armed hostilities, in effect, we also restrain the ability of other sovereign States under international law to prevent and prohibit a weaponization of cyberspace without their consent, for military purposes of other cyber powers. Col. Gary Brown whose work Singh seems to nurture a deep admiration for admits that the first ‘cyber operation’ was conducted by the United States against the Soviet Union in 1982, causing a trans-Siberian pipe to explode by use of malware implanted in Canadian software acquired by Soviet agents. Since 1982, the US seems to have functioned in single-player mode until Russia’s DDoS attacks on Estonia in 2007, or at the very least, until MOONLIGHT MAZE was uncovered in 1998. For those not inclined to read, Col. Brown makes a fascinating appearance alongside former CIA director Michael Hayden in Alex Gibney’s 2016 Documentary ‘Zero Days’ which delves into Stuxnet – an obvious cyber weapon by any standards, which the US ‘plausibly denied’ until 2012.

Turning back to domestic law, the nomenclature is also significant from a public finance perspective. As anecdotal evidence, we can refer to this 2013 Reuters report, which suggests that the US Air Force designated certain cyber capabilities as ‘weapons’ with a view to secure funding from Congress.

From the standpoint of managing public perceptions too, it is apparent that the positive connotations associated with ‘developing cyber capabilities’ makes the same activity a lot more palatable, even development-oriented in the eyes of the general public, as opposed to the inherent negativity associated with say, the ‘proliferation of cyber weapons’.

Additionally, the legal framework is also important to delineate the geographical scope of the legal authority (or its personal jurisdiction, if you will) vested in the military as opposed to intelligence agencies to conduct cyber operations. For organizational purposes, the role of intelligence would (in theory) be limited to CNE, whereas CNA and CND would be vested in the military. We know from (Pukhraj’s) experience, this distinction is nearly impossible to make in practice, at least until after the fact. This overlap of what are arguably, artificially created categories of cyber operations, raises urgent questions about the scope and extent of authority the law can legitimately vest in our intelligence agencies, over and above the implicit authority of the armed forces to operate in the cyber domain.

Norm Making by Norm Breaking

In addition to understanding who wields offensive cyber capabilities, under what circumstances, it is also important for the law to specify where or against whom they are permitted to do so by law. Although militaries of modern day ‘civilized’ nations are rarely ever deployed domestically, there has been some recent concern over whether the US CYBERCOM could be deployed against American citizens in light of recent protests, just as special forces were. While the CIA has legal authority to operate exclusively beyond the United States, the NSA is not burdened by such constraints and is authorized to operate domestically. Thus, the governance/institutional choices before a State looking to ‘acquire cyber weapons’ or ‘develop (offensive) cyber capabilities’ range from bad to worse. One might either (1) permit its intelligence agencies to engage in activities that resemble warfighting more than they resemble intelligence gathering and risk unintentional escalations internationally or (2) permit its military to engage in intelligence collection domestically, potentially against its own citizens and risk ubiquitous militarization of and surveillance in its domestic cyberspace.

Even as many celebrate the recent Federal court verdict that the mass surveillance programmes of the NSA revealed by Edward Snowden were illegal and unconstitutional, let us not forget that this illegality is found vis-à-vis the use of this programme against American citizens only – not foreign surveillance programmes and cyber operations conducted beyond American soil against foreign nationals. Turning to an international law analysis, it is the US’ refusal to recognize State sovereignty as a binding rule of international law, that enables the operationalization of international surveillance and espionage networks and transmission of weaponized cyber capabilities that routinely violate not only the sovereignty of States, but also the privacy and dignity of targeted individuals (the United States does not accept the extra-territorial applicability of the ICCPR).

The nom de guerre of these transgressions in American doctrine is now ‘persistent engagement’ and ‘defend forward’, popularized by the Cyber Solarium Commission most recently—a cleverly crafted term that brings about no technical changes in the modus operandi, but disguises aggressive cyber intrusions across national borders as ostensible self-defence.

It is also relevant that this particular problem also finds a clear mention in the Chinese Foreign Minister’s recent statement on the formulation of Digital Security rules by China. Yet, it is not a practice from which either the US or China plan to desist. Recent revelations about the Chinese firm Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co. by the Indian Express have only served to confirm the expansive, and expanding cyber intelligence network of the Chinese state.

These practices of extraterritorial surveillance, condemnable as they may be, have nonetheless, shaped the international legal order we find ourselves in today – a testimony to the paradoxical dynamism of international law– not unlike the process of ‘creative destruction’ of cyberspace highlighted by Singh—where a transgression of the norm (by either cyber power) may one day, itself become a norm. What this norm is, or should be still remains open to interpretation, so let’s not rush to kill all the lawyers—not just yet anyway.

Fork in the Road? UN General Assembly passes Russia-backed Resolution to fight Cybercrime

By Sharngan Aravindakshan

On 19 November 2019, the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly passed a Russia-backed resolution. The resolution called for the establishment of an ad-hoc intergovernmental committee of experts “to elaborate a comprehensive international convention countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes” (A/C.3/74/L.11/Rev.1). China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea and Syria were also some of the countries that sponsored the resolution. Notably, countries such as Russia, China and North Korea are all proponents of the internet-restrictive “cyber-sovereignty” model, as opposed to the free, open and global internet advocated by the Western bloc. Equally notably, India voted in favour of the resolution. The draft resolution, which was passed by a majority of 88-58 with 34 abstentions, can be accessed here.

The resolution was strongly opposed by most of the Western bloc, with the United States leading the fight against what they believe is a divisive attempt by Russia and China to create UN norms and standards permitting unrestricted state control of the internet. This is the second successful attempt by Russia and China, traditionally seen as outliers in cyberspace for their authoritarian internet regimes, to counter cybernorm leadership by the West. The resolution, to the extent it calls for the establishment of an open-ended ad hoc intergovernmental committee of experts “to elaborate a comprehensive international convention” on cybercrime, is also apparently a Russian proposal for an alternative to the Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention.

Similarly, last year, Russia and China successfully pushed for and established the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), also under the aegis of the United Nations, as an alternative to the US-led UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) in the attempt at making norms for responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. Hence, we now have two parallel UN based processes working on essentially the same issues in cyberspace. The Russians claim that both these processes  are complementary to each other, while others have stated that it was actually an attempt to delay consensus-building in cyberspace. In terms of outcome, scholars have noted the likelihood of either both processes succeeding or both failing, or what Dennis Broeders termed “Mutually Assured Diplomacy”.


The Russia-backed cyber-crime resolution, while innocuously worded, has been widely criticized by civil society groups for its vagueness and for potentially opening the door to widespread human rights violations. In an open letter to the UN General Assembly, various civil society and academic groups have expressed the worry that “it could lead to criminalizing ordinary online behaviour protected under human rights law” and assailed the resolution for the following reasons:

  • The resolution fails to define “use of information and communication technologies for criminal purposes.” It is not clear whether this is meant to cover cyber-dependent crimes (i.e. crimes that can only be committed by using ICTs, like breaking into computer systems to commit a crime or DDoS attacks) or cyber-enabled crimes (i.e. using ICTs to assist in committing “offline” crimes, like child sexual exploitation). The broad wording of the text includes most crimes and this lack of specificity opens the door to criminalising even ordinary online behaviour;
  • The single reference to human rights in the resolution, i.e., “Reaffirming the importance of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” is not strong enough to counter the growing trend among countries to use cybercrime legislation to violate human rights, nor does it recognize any positive obligation on the state to protect human rights.
  • It is essentially a move to negotiate a cybercrime convention or treaty, which will duplicate efforts. The Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention already has the acceptance of 64 countries that have ratified it. Also, there are already other significant international efforts underway in combating cybercrime including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime working on various related issues such as challenges faced by national laws in combating cybercrime (Cybercrime Depository) and the Open Ended Intergovernmental Expert Group Meeting on Cybercrime, which is due to release its report with its findings in 2021.

Wolves in the hen-house?

Russia’s record in human rights protection in the use of information and communications technology has been controversial. Conspicuously, this resolution comes just a few months after it passed its “sovereign-internet law”. The law grants the Kremlin the power to completely cut-off the Russian internet from the rest of the world. According to Human Rights Watch, the law obliges internet service providers to install special equipment that can track, filter, and reroute internet traffic, allowing the Russian government to spy, censor and independently block access to internet content ranging from a single message to cutting off Russia from the global internet or shutting down internet within Russia. While some experts have doubted the technical feasibility of isolating the Russian internet no matter what the government wants, the law has already come into force from 1 November 2019 and it definitely seems like Russia is going to try.

Apart from this, there have also been credible claims attributing various cyberattacks to Russia, including the 2007 attacks on Estonia, the 2008 attacks on Georgia and even the recent hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the US. More recently, in a rare incident of collective public attribution, the US, the UK and the Netherlands called out Russia for targeting the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) investigation into the chemical attack on a former Russian spy in the U.K., and anti-doping organizations through cyberattacks in 2018.

China, another sponsor of the resolution, is also not far behind. According to the RAND Corporation, the most number of cyber-incidents including cyber theft from 2005- 2017 was attributed to China. Also, China’s Great Firewall is famous for allowing internet censorship in the country. A Russo-China led effort in international cybernorm making is now widely feared as portending stricter state control over the internet leading to more restrictions on civil liberties.

However, as a victim of growing cyber-attacks and as a country whose current public stance is against “data monopoly” by the West, India is going to need a lot more convincing by the Western bloc to bring it over to the “free, open and global” internet camp, as its vote in favour of this resolution shows. An analysis of the voting pattern for last year’s UNGA resolution on countering the use of ICT for criminal purposes and what it means for international cyber norm making can be accessed here.

Fractured Norm-making

This latest development only further splinters the already fractured global norm-making process in cyberspace. Countries such as the United States are also taking the approach of negotiating separate bilateral cyberspace treaties with “like-minded nations” to advance its “cyber freedom” doctrine and China is similarly advancing its own “cyber-sovereignty” doctrine alongside Russia.

Add to this mix the private sector’s efforts like Microsoft’s Cybersecurity Tech Accord (2018) and the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace (2018), and it becomes clear that any unified multilateral approach to cybernorm making now seems extremely difficult, if not impossible. With each initiative paving its own way, it now remains to be seen whether these roads all lead to cyberspace stability.