Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, has called for new global rules that could shield innocent civilians if nations conduct cyber warfare to cripple their enemies instead of attacking with conventional weapons in the future.
Guterres said that traditional ways of working out global rules to govern cyber warfare could take decades, hence the process needs to be quick and collaborative between nations.
The secretary-general’s comments do not seem too out of context considering that several nations have begun complaining about repeated cyber attacks being launched by their adversaries to cripple their economies or to steal top-secret technologies.
Last week, both the UK and the United States publicly named and shamed Russia for perpetrating last year’s NotPetya ransomware attacks that disrupted operations at several global firms operating in Ukraine and in Europe. A week earlier, the UK had also pointed fingers at North Korea for launching WannaCry ransomware attacks that hit operations at dozens of NHS trusts and clinics.
A leaked version of Chief of general staff Sir Nick Carter’s speech, which he was slated to deliver in London, also revealed that he was to ask the government not to implement cuts in defence spending by warning about Britain losing its edge in the coming years.
“State-based competition is now being employed in more novel and increasingly integrated ways and we must be ready to deal with them. The threats we face are not thousands of miles away but are now on Europe’s doorstep – we have seen how cyber-warfare can be both waged on the battlefield and to disrupt normal people’s lives – we in the UK are not immune from that,” leaked excerpts of the speech read.
The threat posed by cyber warfare and attacks on critical infrastructure is so real that the U.S. is now drafting a new Nuclear Posture Review that will allow it to respond to crippling cyber attacks with nuclear weapons.
According to the draft Nuclear Posture Review, which is yet to be ratified by President Donald J.Trump, the establishment wants to develop new ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons that will not be as powerful as existing ‘megabombs’ but will still keep the nuclear threshold at existing levels.
‘Russia and China are contesting the international norms and order we have worked with our allies, partners, and members of the international community to build and sustain. Some regions are marked by persistent disorder that appears likely to continue and possibly intensify. These developments have produced increased uncertainty and risk,’ said the Pentagon.
With different nations pursuing different ways to tackle cyber threats and to respond to cyber attacks that seek to cripple their economies, the secretary-general’s comments may seem realistic and more conventional compared to the strong stance taken by the Trump administration.
“Episodes of cyber warfare between states already exist. What is worse is that there is no regulatory scheme for that type of warfare, it is not clear how the Geneva Convention or international humanitarian law applies to it.
“I am absolutely convinced that, differently from the great battles of the past, which opened with a barrage of artillery or aerial bombardment, the next war will begin with a massive cyber attack to destroy military capacity… and paralyse basic infrastructure such as the electric networks,” Guterres said.
While Guterres’ advise is certainly laudable, it remains to be seen what kinds of responses to powerful cyber attacks will be deemed proportionate, and if global rules will impede individual nations’ right to respond adequately after suffering destructive cyber attacks.