Monday, 18 January 2021

UN in your language

Global threats on the horizon: cyber warfare and killer robots

Hacking Worlds Direction | © Flickr CC0 1

The threat of, and use of force is clearly prohibited in the UN Charter, but it is less clear what threshold an act of cyber warfare should meet in order to be considered as “use of force”. The international community just might have to tackle this question sooner than expected.

There is currently no UN treaty prohibiting cyber warfare, and no prospects of such a treaty being ratified in the short-term. The prohibition of use of force can be found in article 2(4) of the UN Charter, and is related to the act of aggression, as defined in the General Assembly Resolution 3314. The resolution, which was adopted in 1974, lists seven acts which constitute acts of aggression and as such violate international law. But due to the age of the resolution, cyber-attacks are not explicitly included.

A cyberattack is described as any type of offensive manoeuvre employed by individuals, groups, organizations or nation-states that targets computer information systems, infrastructures, computer networks, and/or personal computer devices by different means of malicious acts. Often, a cyber-attack originates from an anonymous source that steals, alters, or destroys a specified target by hacking into its system.

Examples of consequences are countless - and of course depend on the target of the attack. An attack could target a national power grid, nuclear facilities, personal client data from hospitals, critical infrastructure or, for instance, collective transport, with severe consequences for cities and citizens of the affected country.

Cyberspace can potentially change the way that wars are conducted in the future, and international organisations are starting to adapt to this new reality. A recent joint EU and NATO effort aims to improve European preparedness for these new security threats, and the EU has tightened its defence after an increase in aggressive cyber-attacks on its servers.

Remedy: Cyber warfare treaty?

The issue of a cyber warfare treaty remains sensitive, but some international lawyers argue that a treaty to ban the aggressive use of cyberspace should be drafted, as the current legal framework is not necessarily sufficient for an offending state to suffer any consequences. That is, if a cyber-attack can be directly attributed to a state, which is often very difficult to prove.

However, treaties are heavy instruments take a long time to negotiate and sign, and even longer to ratify and implement by Member States. This is problematic especially in cases of attempting to regulate technology, as a treaty would risk being outdated before even being agreed upon. Also, the ratification of an effective cyber treaty by all UN Member States remains unlikely, as States with strong cyber capacities would probably not want to constrict themselves through an effective treaty.

That said, even a treaty ratified by less advanced states might prove to be useful, at least to some extent. A cyber treaty could potentially establish a new norm restricting future cyber-attacks, similar to the hoped effect of the newly signed UN treaty banning nuclear weapons.

Hackers or robots?

It seems attacks by hackers aren’t the only type of attacks mankind has to fear.

Elon Musk, along with Alphabet’s Mustafa Suleyman and over a hundred other tech chiefs, recently published an open letter addressed to the United Nations. In the letter, they warn the UN of another kind of possible warfare the world might be facing, namely through the revolution of killer robots which could worsen the potential consequences of hacking significantly.

“Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare”, they write in their letter. “Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.”

The tech leaders directed their letter to the United Nations Conference on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) and its established Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems, which was due to convene on 21 August. However, as a result of too small a number of States paying their financial contributions to the UN, the first meeting of the GGE is now planned for November.

“We entreat the High Contracting Parties participating in the GGE to work hard at finding means to prevent an arms race in these weapons, to protect civilians from their misuse, and to avoid the destabilizing effects of these technologies”, the tech leaders write in their letter.

The CCW Group of Governmental Experts has been urged to begin negotiations on a new CCW protocol by the end of 2018 that would pre-emptively ban fully autonomous weapons.

More than 90 countries are expected to participate in the GGE meeting at the UN in Geneva on 13-17 November as well as key UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.


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