Cyberwarfare Blurs Line between Civilian and Military Targets

Speaker: Cassandra Steer

January 31, 2023

Cyberwarfare Blurs Line between Civilian and Military Targets

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Cyberwarfare Blurs Line between Civilian and Military Targets

Cassandra Steer

This video is part of Cybersecurity and Outer Space, an essay series that explores space governance through three themes: space security and risk, international governance challenges, and global perspectives and the pursuit of inclusivity.

Historically, there has been a clear distinction between civilian and military space equipment. In recent years, the majority of space equipment, such as communications and Earth-observation satellites, was launched and operated by the private sector. This private sector equipment is being used by both civilian and military groups and is referred to as “dual use.” In an era of increasing cyberattacks, space-based equipment that provides both civilian and military services is coming under attack. A foreign adversary, hacktivist or terrorist may target the military activities of a particular satellite, possibly creating unintended consequences for civilians using the same equipment. For example, attacking a communications satellite could interfere with military communications as intended, but also disable internet access in remote regions that rely on it for telemedicine or banking. This could put civilians in harm’s way.

In this video, Cassandra Steer, deputy director of the Australian National University Institute for Space, explains how international humanitarian law (IHL) protects civilians from the horrors of war. While the most recent Geneva Conventions were formed after the Second World War, long before satellites and the internet existed, the treaties extend to all future forms of warfare, meaning that the civilian is to be protected from any warfare activities conducted on cyber and space systems.

Cyberattacks often fall below the threshold of full-scale warfare into what is known as the “grey zone,” making it difficult to determine if an escalatory response is necessary. An added complication is the dual-use nature of space-based systems: “It is increasingly difficult to identify which assets are civilian and which are military, especially when the majority of satellites are commercially owned and providing services for both military and civilian groups,” explains Steer. Ultimately, IHL errs on the side of protecting the civilian. To reduce future potential impacts on civilians who rely on space and cyber systems, law makers need to further define how IHL applies to dual-use assets.

Conflict and security in the twenty-first century is not only multistakeholder, but it’s also undeniably multidomain, meaning that no situation plays out solely on land, at sea or in the air. It’s happening across multiple operating domains and increasingly over the cyber and space domains.

You see, for many years, cyber and space were seen as support domains to the traditional domains of land, air and sea, but today, a military operation may play out entirely in the cyber domain.

And as for space, it has become a strategic domain unto itself because the most effective way to compromise an adversary’s ability to see, hear and navigate, or even to access command-and-control systems, is to compromise their space systems.

Cyber and space operations tend to fall into what’s known as “grey-zone” activities, which are defined as activities that fall short of an actual armed conflict and are difficult to define under the laws of armed conflict.

But it’s not just the military who relies on cyber and space systems; civilians like you and I do, too.

From GPS navigation, weather forecasting, telecommunications, we are using the cyber and space domains in our daily lives. Often, both civilian activities and military activities are happening on private sector equipment. We call this dual use. And it complicates warfare because targeting a cyber or space system for a military activity could also be harmful to civilians like you and I, who rely on that same infrastructure.

Which is why we must understand how international humanitarian law extends to include these two domains.

Let me explain: Ever since humans have had organized warfare, we’ve had some form of rules protecting those not involved in the conflict. This dates back centuries to ancient texts from China and India, stating that civilians and unarmed individuals should not be harmed.

After the Second World War, the Geneva Conventions were created, and that codified rules into what we know today as international humanitarian law, or IHL for short. Over the years, IHL has been enhanced to further define protections and to reduce the horrors of war. And even though IHL was created long before space and cyber technologies existed, it extends to include both domains.

When it was written, article 1 of the Geneva Conventions obliged states to “ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances,” ensuring that all future warfare would also fall under these rules.

And the International Court of Justice has stated that IHL “applies to all forms of warfare and to all kinds of weapons, those of the past, those of the present and those of the future.” From this, we know that IHL applies to present and future technologies in space and in cyberspace.

Regardless of our attempts at peace, tensions will arise and, increasingly, because of the difficulty of identifying the author of cyberattacks, space systems have become vulnerable to cyber interferences.

How do states respond to cyber and space system attacks? 

Well, again, we can refer to IHL as a guide. It determines that force is to be used only when it is necessary to achieve a definite military advantage, and that such force must be proportionate to those aims.

The complication is the dual-use nature of both cyber and space systems. It’s increasingly difficult to identify which assets are civilian and which are military, especially when the majority of satellites are commercially owned and providing services for both military and civilian groups.

Regardless, IHL errs on the side of continued protection of the civilian.

We need to clarify the application of IHL norms, rules and principles when it relates to the space and cyber domains. Having international agreement and cooperation will have positive impacts on reducing the risk of escalation and retaliation in these domains, and it will minimize impacts to civilians who rely on these systems for daily life.

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