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Rules for robot-war

June 17, 2012


DOES the deployment of a computer virus by one state against another constitute an act of war? In this wired world, sabotaging a country’s computer systems through malware, or a piece of computer code designed to cause damage, is surely an offensive action equivalent to firing a missile at an enemy.

But thus far, international law has not kept pace with technology, and states can and do use these unseen weapons to further their agendas. Thus, malware like Stuxnet and Flame have apparently been launched against Iranian computers by American and Israeli experts to slow down its nuclear programme and to spy on its leaders.

The advantage this kind of high-tech warfare offers is deniability. Also, there is no visible collateral damage. Unlike crude assassinations – also allegedly carried out by Israeli agents against Iranian nuclear scientists – cyber-attacks leave no blood and few clues.

Despite the apparently clinical nature of such attacks, they are nevertheless illegal. The fact that there has been no outcry against them is yet another indication of the increasing recourse to hostile actions conducted by states, and the tolerance they now enjoy across the world.

American and Israeli covert action against Iran has been going on ever since Tehran launched its uranium enrichment programme. President Ahmedinejad’s loud and ill-advised anti-Semitic remarks have not helped the Iranian cause. Assassinations and mysterious explosions at missile sites have drawn virtually no global condemnation.

Similarly, American drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan’s tribal areas have gone virtually unchallenged in foreign capitals, except among a few rarefied circles. In both cases, the states are seen as incapable or unwilling to tackle extremists on their own. And the reality is that in both cases, the states are complicit in these attacks, either covertly or overtly.

Since 9/11, international law regarding military action has been steadily eroded. With the appearance of non-state actors like Al Qaeda on the scene as major players, countries under threat now feel that the UN and the Geneva Conventions no longer restrict their freedom of action.

Under international law, a country is permitted to use force against another if it is under attack. The concept of pre-emptive war is, in theory, unacceptable. Only a UN Security Council resolution authorises the deployment of arms against a member state. However, we have seen this principle flouted time and again: India against Pakistan in 1971; Israel against its Arab foes in 1967; and more recently, the American-led coalition against Iraq in 2003.

Advances in technology have also facilitated this recourse to the extra-legal use of force. For years, the US refused to accept that it was behind the drone attacks in Pakistan; only recently has the Obama administration openly acknowledged and justified its use of these lethal unmanned aircraft. Deep-penetration patrols conducted by US Special Forces are known to have spied on Iranian nuclear sites. Stealth technology has allowed US forces to enter Pakistani airspace undetected.

Currently, China and Russia are known to deploy teams of experts to hack into Western computer systems to steal information. The Pentagon reports dozens of such attacks every day. Some presumably are undetected. But thus far, these intrusions are not designed to cause damage. However, this could change, now that Washington and Tel Aviv are known to have used malware to launch attacks on Iranian targets.

Apart from deniability, the advantage of using this technology is that it is highly cost-effective. Basically, a state needs a few dozen smart programmers and analysts to write potentially devastating computer code. More and more countries are acquiring this capability. Already, low-intensity warfare is being conducted in cyberspace between Israeli and Arab hackers who routinely take down or deface each others’ websites. Although relatively harmless, this activity can easily be ratcheted up at the state level.

Increasingly, fears are being expressed about possible attacks against computers controlling electricity and water distribution. Thus far, the probable authors of such online intrusions are extremist groups. But now that the US and Israel have initiated scarcely concealed attacks against Iran, we may soon witness other states using such tools against their adversaries. Americans like to see themselves as the flag-bearers of the rule of law. So each time they break the rules they promised to uphold, they weaken them. It can be argued that it is better to use bloodless weapons like Stuxnet to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions than to fire missiles at its uranium enrichment plants. Indeed, given the steady drumbeat of war emanating from Israel, American military planners probably thought a joint computer attack would be the lesser of two evils.

Nevertheless, the rapid erosion of morality and law in international relations raises the alarming prospect of a free for all where states use cheap and easily accessible technology to launch attacks against others. Clearly, the time has come to frame clear rules banning the use of malware by one state against another.

It’s true that rules and laws have not prevented hostile acts by governments. After all, targeted assassinations are against both American and international law, but this has not stopped the Pentagon and the CIA from taking out Al Qaeda and Taliban targets.

In this climate of constant recourse to unauthorised force, the UN has been virtually marginalised. As hysteria mounted in Israel over the Iranian nuclear programme, and hawks in Tel Avis and Washington clamoured for a pre-emptive strike, the UN Secretary General’s voice was missing from those who counselled caution. Similarly, Ban Ki-moon has said very little about drones or the use of covert action.

As more technology becomes available to distance the attacker from the target, there is an urgent need to convene an international conference to regulate the use of such sophisticated weaponry. For example, the US is refining technology that would enable its forces to shut down all electrical impulses in an opponent’s tank or aircraft. This would effectively knock out an enemy’s weapon system without killing anyone. Robots are joining US forces in increasing numbers.

We have entered an era of sci-fi where weapon systems will have greater autonomy, and politicians and generals will be able to delegate the killing to remote machines. It is high time we began discussing the implications of these developments.