Could a cyberwar ever be ethical?

The Atlantic has published a fascinating article about how the ongoing digital revolution is changing the face of war, and how military and government leaders are failing to adopt a new ethics to match. Written by cyberwar and emerging technology experts Patrick Lin, Fritz Allhoff, and Neil Rowe, the essay makes the case that just-war theory still applies – even when the battlefield is digital.

The authors point out that, in consideration of such recent incidents as Stuxnet, Flame, and compromised backdoor switches, cyberwar has taken on a new kind of intensity. This, combined with the Bush Doctrine of ‘shoot first and ask questions later', has created a troubling atmosphere in which wars are far too easily entered into – and where little consideration is given to the ethics of the engagements. As Lin, Allhoff, and Rowe note,

Our world is increasingly wired, with new online channels for communication and services interwoven into our lives virtually every day. This also means new channels for warfare. Indeed, a target in cyberspace is more appealing than conventional physical targets, since the aggressor would not need to incur the expense and risk of transporting equipment and deploying troops across borders into enemy territory, not to mention the political risk of casualties. Cyberweapons could be used to attack anonymously at a distance while still causing much mayhem, on targets ranging from banks to media to military organizations. Thus, cyberweapons would seem to be an excellent choice for an unprovoked surprise strike.

Today's laws, they note, were not written with cyberspace in mind. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't act like things haven't changed. There's still an imperative, the authors say, to wage a "just cyberwar."

Take the issue of aggression, for example. Cyberattacks have taken on the flavor of espionage and vandalism – and even preemptive strikes. Lin, Allhoff, and Rowe are disturbed by this growing tendency:

If aggression in cyberspace is not tied to actual physical harm or threat to lives, it is unclear then how we should understand it. Does it count as aggression when malicious software has been installed on a computer system that an adversary believes will be triggered? Or maybe the very act of installing malicious software is an attack itself, much like installing a landmine? What about unsuccessful attempts to install malicious software? Do these count as war-triggering aggression — or mere crimes, which do not fall under the laws of war? Traditional military ethics would answer all these questions negatively, but in the debate over the legitimacy of preemptive and preventative war, the answers are more complex and elusive.

There's also the issue of accountability. Given the recent cyber-shenanigans, it's clear that culpability is not something that combatants are willing to admit – but perhaps they should:

Attribution is not only about moral responsibility but also criminal (or civil) liability: we need to know who to blame and, conversely, who can be absolved of blame. To make attribution work, we need international agreements. We first could agree that cyberattacks should carry a digital signature of the attacking organization. Signatures are easy to compute, and their presence can itself be concealed with the techniques of steganography, so there are no particular technical obstacles to using them. Nation-states could also agree to use networking protocols, such as IPv6, that make attribution easier, and they could cooperate better on international network monitoring to trace sources of attacks. Economic incentives, such as the threat of trade sanctions, can make such agreements desirable.

The authors say that the time to invoke new laws, standards, and codes of conduct is now. By building ethics into the design of cyberweapons, it's hoped that we can help ensure that war isn't any crueler than it already is.

Be sure to read the entire article over at The Atlantic as there's lots more to consider, including issues of discrimination, proportionality, treacherous deceit – and even the possibility of having combatting nations agree to "un-do" the damage they cause.

Image via Shutterstock/gudron.