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Just War Theory and Cyber Warfare

Lin’s, Allhoff’s and Rowe’s article in yesterday’s “The Atlantic” could have not been more timely. In the previous week a new cyber weapons has been ‘discovered’, the Flame; the New York Times reported the story behind one of the most famous cyber attacks, i.e. Stuxnet, confirming everyone’s suspicion that both the US and Israel had launched the attack; the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence inaugurates The Fourth International Conference on Cyber Conflict, hosting militaries, policy makers, politicians, experts in law and also an ethicist (myself) to discuss and share ideas, data and ‘unclassified’ material about cyber warfare. It turns out that cyber warfare really is today’s hot topic, or at least this week’s hot topic.
In the article, the authors stress the importance of the ethical implications of cyber warfare and the need for policies and regulations that would guarantee a just cyber warfare, meaning warfare that respects the principles of Just War Theory tradition, as they name them: aggression, discrimination, proportionality, attribution, treacherous deceit, and a long-lasting peace.
The problem is that applying Just War Theory to the case of cyber warfare is not straightforward at all. Somehow, cyber warfare slips through the net of Just War Theory and it proves to be quite difficult to regulate using old, traditional ethical principles.
Just War Theory is an ethical theory concerned with the preservation of and respect for human life and liberty; it is all about limiting casualties and physical damage. It is an ethical theory designed to keep in mind classic warfare and its tangible targets. In the grand scheme of Just War Theory there is no place for informational infrastructures, data and information. In other words, there is no concern for the targets of cyber warfare.
One may then wonder the reason why we should bother with ethics at all, when it comes to warfare that, in most circumstances, is waged using a piece of code against some intangible objects, without directly causing casualties or physical damage.
For once, philosophers and ethicists are in the right place to provide a good answer, reminding themselves, the law and the policy makers that those intangible targets are something upon which individuals and societies of the information age depend. Just consider how much of the GPD of several European countries rests mainly on such intangible goods (Floridi’s article).
If this was not enough, as members of information societies we actually attribute a moral value to informational infrastructures, the data and information that they store. The importance we attribute to online privacy and anonymity provides a good example in this respect. So if there is a war that is targeting precisely such information-related goods, it has to be a fair warfare because, despite being intangible, those goods are worthwhile.
The authors are right in pointing to Just War Theory as the ethical framework to be taken into consideration. As a matter of fact, Just War Theory offers a set of principles for just war that remain valid for any type of warfare that may be waged, be it classic or cyber. It is also a fact, that there is a hiatus between the ontology of the entities involved in traditional warfare and of those involved in cyberwar. This is because Just War Theory rests on an anthropocentric ontology, i.e. it is concerned with respect for human rights and disregards non-human entities as part of the moral discourse, and for this reason it does not provide sufficient means for addressing the case for cyber warfare. It is this hiatus that presents the need for philosophical and ethical work to fill it and provide new grounds to ensure just cyber warfare.
Another issue is to convince both policy and law-makers that the gap in current policies and regulations that everyone is so concerned about can only be bridged taking into account the moral stance of informational objects. This may be just the next task to be accomplished.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. JWT is essentially concerned with ‘human objects’ that are within the perceptual range. The theory was put together when combat was face to face. In today’s warfare, the whole game is centered on a ‘flick of a switch’: the soldier is far removed from seeing his or his opponent’s humanity: the battlefield is nothing but a Darwinian jungle where the most ‘equipped’ soldier survives. With regards to Cyber warfare, I don’t think any of the JWT’s core elements can be effectively applied towards it. Cyber warfare can be launched by the agents of country X from the jungles of Amazon, with an network IP address belonging to country Y that has nothing to do with the conflict. Where lies then the ‘just cause’ if the source of the attack is a poor and miserable country somewhere in Africa? Also, what about ‘declaring Cyber war?’ Would a country that intends to paralyze his opponents computer networks officially and publicly send a declaration of war? JWT, therefore, neither serves the conventional warfare nor the Cyber warfare: in both cases, it will have to be used as a ‘window dressing.’ The theory needs people of conscience, including the politicians, soldiers, generals and so forth. If the mind that controls the warfare is ‘ethical,’ almost any war theory will do the job.

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