Dear gov cyber-ninjas, try not to kill people. Love from the lawyers

Stick nuke plants and hospitals on no-go list too - war manual


What kind of uniform do you wear in cyberspace?

Cyber operations can involve war crimes (rule 24), in which case military commanders and their superiors can be held criminally responsible. The experts disagreed whether the cyber warriors from either side of a conflict need to wear uniforms but agreed that (rule 28) "mercenaries involved in cyber-operations do not enjoy combat immunity or prisoner of war status".

There is also a definition of what constitutes a cyber-attack (rule 30) "A cyber attack is a cyber operation, whether defensive or offensive, that is reasonably expected to cause injury or death to persons or damage or destruction to objects".

Elsewhere (rule 32), the guidebook states that "the civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be subject to cyber attacks". That means attacks on a chemical plant designed to cause an explosion are out.

Cyber attacks primarily designed to spread terror are classified as unlawful (rule 36) but cyber-propaganda is allowed. Attacks against dual-use military and civilian systems , including computer networks, are permitted (rule 39). However there wasn't any consensus that attacks against GPS systems, for example, are more problematic and attacking either Facebook or Twitter just because the military uses it is not on. Attacking the internet in its entirety was considered a purely theoretical possibility, at least for now.

The legal experts have brainstormed some exotic scenarios. for example, it's not permissible to attack an enemy general's defibrillator (rule 42). Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited (rule 49). Deception in cyber-war operations is permitted (rule 61), and this would include the use of honeypots, transmission of misleading messages, psychological warfare and use of enemy codes and passwords, among other things.

Cyber-espionage is also permitted under international law. Rule 66 explains that "cyber espionage and other forms of information gathering directed at an adversary during armed conflict do not violate the rules of armed conflict". However anybody running a cyber-espionage op in enemy territory that gets captured will be treated as a spy, and not as a prisoner of war.

Deception is alright, but it's not permitted to present the military emblems to the enemy during an attack (rule 64). The legal eagles failed to reach an agreement on how to handle cyber-blockades. They did agree that medical units, including associated computer networks, ought to be protected (rule 71). Prisoners of war, meanwhile, can't be compelled to take a pop at their own country (rule 77).

Conscripting scriptkiddies, or even allowing children to participate in cyber hostilities, is also out of order (rule 78). Rule 80 prohibits attacks against dams or nuclear facilities liable to lead to their destruction.

In order to avoid the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population, particular care must be taken during cyber attacks against works or installations containing dangerous forces, namely dams, dykes and nuclear electricity generating stations, as well as installations located in their vicinity.

The line here, as explained in the following eight paragraphs, appears to be any attack against a nuclear generating plant that takes it offline might be permissible but anything that endangers meltdown is clearly wrong. Attacks against civilian water supplies or food stores are also prohibited (rule 81). The legal experts go on to consider how the concepts of occupation and neutrality might be applied to conflict in cyberspace.

La règle du jeu

IT security vendors welcomed attempts to codify rules for conflict in cyberspace.

Jarno Limnéll, doctor in military science and director of cyber-security for firewall firm Stonesoft, described the cyber landscape as a modern Wild West.

"State actors are openly showing their ‘weapons’ and can do whatever they please with little fear of open retaliation - because there are no rules or limitations," Limnéll said.

"Most states are preparing for a cyber-war, all are very suspicious about each other, testing one another’s capabilities and there are no accepted rules or international norms. Recent accusations and mud-slinging between North Korea, China, Russia and the US show cyber espionage, cyber-attacks and the recruitment of talented hackers are now a recognised part of strategic influence and combat.

"The handbook developed by NATO's Co-operative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence is an extremely encouraging step forward in the pursuit of international norms and laws regulating the cyber security domain."

Jason Steer, EMEA product manager at FireEye, welcomed the guidelines but said that enforcing them would be difficult.

"While NATO’s move to implement a set of rules are to be advocated, the difficulty – as is always the case in cyber space – will be in enforcing and defending these protocols," Steer said. "Cyber criminals have long been able to hide behind false identities and cover all trace of illegal activity.

"We have seen the level of sophistication of these cyber attacks increase exponentially in recent times and so it will prove a considerable challenge for NATO to defend its new set of regulations against the wave of next-generation hackers, who are now armed with highly advanced and targeted tools."

“As the cyber threat escalates, the UK must now proactively address security with the aim of ring-fencing its core assets with the best available tools,” he added.

Earlier reaction to the Tallinn Manual can be found in a blog post by F-Secure here. ®


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