What is the appropriate response to a cyber attack? Under what circumstances should it be met with the same response as a physical attack? This piece from The Conversation considers how philosophy's just war theory does, and doesn't, measure up in an age of cyber attacks.
"In conventional warfare, it’s accepted that if a state finds itself under attack, it’s entitled to respond – either with defensive force, or with a counterattack. But it’s less clear how countries should respond to cyber-attacks: state-backed hacks which often have dangerous real-world implications. ... As cyber-attacks are new and ambiguous forms of threat, careful ethical consideration should take place before we decide upon appropriate responses. We already have a millennia-old framework designed to regulate the use of physical force in wars. It’s called 'just war theory', and its rules determine whether or not it’s morally justified to launch military operations against a target. Given how cyber systems can be weaponised, it seems natural for ethicists to build 'cyberwar' into existing just war theory. But not everyone is convinced. ... [Some] believe cyberwar requires a wholesale rethink, and are building an entirely new theory of 'just information war'. ... After all, while conventional military force targets human bodies and their built environment, cyber-attacks chiefly harm data and virtual objects. Crucially, while physical attacks are 'violent', cyber-attacks seem to present – if anything – an alternative to violence. ... Clearly, cyber-attacks can result in grave harms that states have a responsibility to defend their citizens against. But cyber-attacks are ambiguous – US senator Mitt Romney characterised the SolarWinds hack as “an invasion”, while Mark Warner of the US Senate Intelligence Committee placed it “in that grey area between espionage and an attack”.
"For defence agencies, the difference matters. If they regard state-backed hacks as attacks, they may believe themselves entitled to launch offensive counterattacks. But if hacks are just espionage, they may be dismissed as business as usual, part of the everyday intelligence work of states. ... Instead, what seems to make some cyber operations violent attacks – rather than mere espionage – is that they express similar sorts of intention to those expressed in physical violence. ... If some cyber-attacks are acts of violence, then perhaps they could justify defensive violence or counterattack. That would depend on the degree of destruction threatened, and defenders would still have to satisfy age-old just war rules. But the same premise means that employing offensive cyber-attacks ought to be seen as a grave matter – as grave, in some cases, as physical attacks. It is vital, then, that [a nation's military] directs its operations with the same care and restraint as if they were using military weapons in a conventional war."
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