Ethics and Humanitarianism in Cyberspace – What does the future hold?

In the course of wars fought by the United States over the past 100+ years and the brutality that accompanied them, the just war doctrine has remained a civilized constant by which United States service members have been expected to abide. It can be described as the embodiment of two centuries old concepts, “Jus Ad Bellum” and “Jus in Bello”, which, respectively, refer to the possession of a defensible basis for beginning a war and the justified method by which it is fought.

More simply put, it is a code of conduct that compels warfighters to ensure that the ends of any actions taken are justified by the means taken to successfully achieve them. Examples of Just War expectations include ensuring that the cause is a just one, the desired intentions pursuant to battle are good, no other reasonable means can be used to achieve the desired result, and that ultimately a greater level of peace is the end result.

Traditionally, this doctrine has applied to the physical battlefield. In the short span of the first two decades of the twenty-first century, though, the terrain of the battlefield has shifted and now includes, in many instances, a cyber aspect that challenges the standing ethos of what a just war is and how it remains such. Nation states now regularly utilize technically-proficient personnel to stage cyber attacks. Some of these are designed to gain entry to a rival government network, in hopes of establishing a regular point of ingress and egress, by which to exfiltrate information. Others are designed to create denials of service, aimed at crippling command and control operations.

Regardless of their intent, these methods, in many cases, may not pass the litmus test of the just war doctrine. Specifically, an enemy state could stage a network intrusion into an Industrial Control System of an energy provider, with the intent of cutting power to a specific grid in which a military organization is operating. The obvious effect would be to hinder or cripple the organization’s ability to operate. The secondary and possibly unforeseen effect could be that innocent civilians who depend upon the electricity in that grid to power oxygen, dialysis, or other devices critical to survival are inadvertently killed, solely based upon their geographic proximity.

The aforementioned examples serve to show that the concept of cyber warfare does pose new and unforeseen challenges to the longstanding just war doctrine. As the twenty-first century continues to unfold and cyberspace becomes an increasingly important war-fighting domain, the lines between traditional and electronic warfare are guaranteed to continue blurring. This, in turn, will require senior leaders to adjust fire and address what the legal and ethical concept of justice in a virtual domain means now and how it will likely change in the future. If and (hopefully) how that fire is adjusted to ensure the just war ethos and humanitarian laws are globally respected will undoubtedly further shape our collective future as a global society.

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