Mapping the Societal Risks and Potential Humanitarian Impact of Cyber Operations

Our new Working Paper Societal Risks and Potential Humanitarian Impact of Cyber Operations provides an up-to-date assessment of existing risks and protection needs in light of contemporary and future military cyber capabilities.

Based on two expert workshops and four other consultations with individual experts – held between February and May 2021 – it addresses the following three overarching questions:

  • What risks, potential humanitarian consequences, and protection needs for conflict-affected populations arise on the digital battlefield?
  • Does international law, in particular international humanitarian law (IHL), adequately address these risks and protection needs?
  • If not, what recommendations could be developed in terms of law and policy beyond the existing IHL framework to mitigate these risks and address these protection needs?

‘The expert consultation sought to gain insights from cybersecurity experts from different disciplines and with different backgrounds concerning the current developments of technological, political, and societal trends in the global cybersecurity landscape’ explains Professor Marco Roscini, Swiss IHL Chair at the Geneva Academy.

Trends in Current Cyber Operations and Vulnerabilities

Written by Pia Hüsch and Henning Lahmann, the report details in five distinct parts the actors involved in adversarial cyber operations, the methods they use, their objectives, on what the vulnerabilities of the targets depends, and what can be done to strengthen these targets’ resilience against cyber harm.

A sixth concluding part briefly touches upon some of the legal issues raised during the workshops and consultations that merit more in-depth consideration.

‘The main takeaways are that the different actors have become significantly more sophisticated in their attacks, using ever-more intricate methods – often in combination (e.g. a ransomware attack followed by an information operation). It has become more frequent to target entire societies, which is partly a function of increasing vulnerabilities especially in sectors where the digital transformation has been happening too quickly’ explains Henning Lahmann.

Man before two computer screens with code

Laying the Ground for Future Research on Conflict Digitalization

The consultations and this resulting paper lay the factual groundwork for the remainder of our joint initiative with the International Committee of the Red Cross on the digitalization of conflict.

‘We can only conduct an informed legal analysis – as the basis for possible recommendations as to a possible further development of the law – with adequate expert knowledge on recent developments in the global cybersecurity landscape’ underlines Professor Roscini.

‘This paper therefore provides an adequate starting point for our research with the ICRC that addresses one of the most pressing challenges in the law of armed conflict today’ he adds.

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