A Moral and Legal Challenge in the Cyber Domain
Skeptics (e.g., Thomas Rid, 2013) have cast doubt on the notion of authentic cyber warfare. Cyber conflict consists, the skeptics argue, solely of activities which fall well short of full scale warfare: e.g., crime, vandalism, “hacktivism” (political activism by individuals and organizations carried out in the cyber domain), industrial espionage, and military espionage. Talk of cyber “warfare,” they complain, is largely conceptual confusion, coupled with misplaced metaphorical exaggeration.
Against such criticisms, I have argued by contrast that there is a distinctive category of cyber conflict that qualifies as warfare – or, more correctly, which rises to the level of the “use, or threat of use, of force by states; or, the equivalent of an armed attack” in international law (Lucas 2017). This new kind of warfare has thus far manifest itself in two distinctive forms:
- effects-based weapons (such as Stuxnet) which can be deployed to damage or destroy military targets; and
- weapons and attacks in the cyber domain intended to produce political effects similar to those usually sought as the goal or objective of a conventional use of force by states against one another.
I have labeled this second class of cyber hostilities “state-sponsored hacktivism” (SSH). SSH is one of the principle tactics of a wider phenomenon, recently dubbed “soft war,” or unarmed conflict (Gross & Meisels, 2017) [Note]. It qualifies as warfare because it is deployed to compel an adversary to yield to the political aims of the state utilizing it. SSH is perfectly capable of achieving the equivalent of occupying an enemy’s cities, destroying his army, and breaking his will to fight. It is fully capable of moving a political center of gravity from a given posture prior to the attack, to one more in keeping with the attacker’s own political aspirations vis á vis the victim’s in the aftermath. In short, this form of cyber conflict satisfies the classical definition of Clausewitz (1830) regarding war as politics carried out by alternative means.
SSH is not identical to, nor can it be merely reduced to acts of vandalism, crime, or espionage, although it utilizes such components within the framework of an SSH attack. One might say that SSH is either none of the above, or else it involves all of the above “on steroids.” Considerations of scale and magnitude, as well as of ease of access, are important in understanding this category of warfare, much as such considerations have been, in the past, for differentiating between “private” and domestic uses of conventional lethal force (e.g., as criminal acts by individuals or organizations), and those of “public” warfare that are state-sponsored. (more…)