Cyberattacks: a matter of war or disruption?

Cyberattacks are a threat to national security. However, describing them as war is highly problematic.

Critics of this stance often argue that armed conflict has been becoming virtual. They say that violence in post-modern conflicts has decreased, replaced by other forms of violence such as cyberattacks.

However, war is a distinct activity with a particular nature. It is organized violence carried out by political units.

Most cyberattacks are a type of non-military activity that falls under the broad banner of “strategy” or “grand strategy.” In other words, when sponsored by states, they may serve military activity as much as diplomacy does.

Cyberspace is the fifth domain of conflict, entirely constructed by humanity. It is intangible and, in very few cases, can be associated with physical destruction.

The vast majority of cyberattacks is to be better understood as a form of sabotage rather than of war.

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Cyberattacks: defining war.

First, to determine whether cyberattacks maybe fall under the category of war, one should define it.

In a purely technical sense, war is a matter of organized violence. Who carries out it is states. Then, informal groups carrying out warfare-like activities such as terrorism do not carry out war.

State-sponsored groups usually carry out cyberattacks, although not all can be attributed to them.

To qualify something like war, moreover, damage should be extensive. To date, one cyberattack that hitting the Iranian nuclear infrastructure led to limited physical destruction.

Cyberattacks: war or disruption?

Once defined war, we may now understand whether we can refer cyberattacks as proper war acts.

First, a typology of cyber offensive activity, called cyberwarfare, may fall under the definition of war.

Indeed, cyberwarfare may refer to “the use of digital attacks to attack a nation, causing comparable harm to actual warfare and/or disrupting the vital computer systems.”

However, this definition does not define the actual agent. Indeed, one may ask: “which is the origin of the threat?”  A state or a state-sponsored actor?

Be careful with the answer. As far as international law is concerned, saying one or the other is a huge difference.

When state-sponsored, cyberattacks, and even cyberwarfare, may not qualify as acts of war.

On the other hand, it may be challenging to hold accountable a state for cyber offensives such as cyber espionage or disruption.

Conclusion

To conclude, defining cyberattacks as acts of war is such a complex matter. This blog has shown that the answer to that question is not as straightforward as it may seem.

In actual fact, no wars have originated from cyber attacks so far. It isn’t easy to point a finger towards a state regarding accountability.

Finally, cyberattacks are illegal themselves, but they lay in a grey area as espionage does: they do not seem enough to provoke a war, although they may serve military actions.