We Need a Geneva Convention on Cyber Warfare

The term "Geneva Convention" (or even "Geneva Conventions") is a rather vague term, encompassing a whole sheaf of international agreements on the proper conduct of war. In the first place, the "convention" doesn't refer to a group of people but rather to the agreements themselves. In the second place, what most are referring to when using the term is a collection of international agreements reaching back to the late nineteenth century; some agreed upon in Geneva, Switzerland, and some elsewhere (the Hague, for instance). But while the term itself is a collectively vague one, what is being referred to is usually pretty clear: nations of the world banding together and deciding that certain conduct in wartime is simply unacceptable for being too inhumane.

Of course, that's a tough target to hit, to put it in military terms. There are many weapons and tactics which are pretty downright inhumane which are still completely legal under the Geneva Conventions. And being killed in one fashion rather than another certainly doesn't bring much comfort to those loved ones left to mourn. Even so, the accomplishments of the Geneva Conventions are many, from the introduction of the International Red Cross to definition of acceptable treatment of prisoners and non-combatants.

One example most use to cite success isn't even really all that valid. The horrors of mustard gas in World War I were supposedly banned in 1899, under the "Hague Convention," but hundreds of thousands still died choking in the trenches. The "Geneva Protocol" of 1925 further prohibited "asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases" but that didn't stop the United States from moving stockpiles of mustard gas to Germany in 1943, just in case Germany might use chemical weapons (which resulted in a tragedy, when the Germans bombed the town).

International agreements are not perfect. The United States now gets on a moral high horse over Syria's use of chemical weapons, but we didn't start destroying our own stockpiles of chemical weapons until just a few decades ago (and we still haven't completed the task). It took until 1997 for the "Chemical Weapons Convention" to finally and ultimately prohibit such weapons -- 80 years after World War I.

Even though it took a long time to get to this point, it was an effort worth making. Which is why the nations of the world should now start a new conversation in some internationally-neutral city, with the expressed purpose of defining what is and what is not allowable for the future of warfare (and spying). Three major topics of such an agreement should be: passive cyberwar (spying on communications), active cyberwar (virus and other attacks), and robot warfare (drones and other automated weaponry).

Right now, the passive and robot forms of warfare are prominently in the news. The United States is roundly being criticized by its allies for vacuuming up enormous amounts of digital communications data -- including listening in on phone calls made by world leaders of countries we are supposed to be allied with. This has followed revelations of massive domestic spying in America, but are more troubling to citizens of other countries, for obvious reasons. And just last week, two respected rights organizations released a report which essentially labeled America a war criminal for how we've been using drones to drop lethal bombs and missiles on people in countries we are not at war with.

The third subject isn't as recent, but it wasn't all that long ago that Iran's centrifuges were attacked by the "Stuxnet" virus, which reportedly set the program back in a major way by giving the centrifuges the instructions to destroy themselves (this is a vast oversimplification, but it will do for the sake of discussion). Closer to home, America has long complained that China's military has a specialized unit whose sole goal is to launch cyberattacks on America's computers and infrastructure.

Although I've used mostly American examples here (due to the current news), what the folks in the Pentagon worry about is not so much how to attack other countries, but how vulnerable we are to such attacks. Vice President Dick Cheney recently remarked that he was concerned that the pacemaker device he uses to keep alive might have been vulnerable to hacking. There are so many devices which are "online" these days -- from traffic signals to household electric power meters -- that it wouldn't be all that hard to plan a serious disruption of American life as we know it. What would the results look like if some foreign power took down our air traffic control system suddenly? Or our GPS system? Or blocked every cell phone call in the country? Or -- even more frighteningly -- took out all three systems at the same time? The prospects are pretty grim. And that's just a handful of scenarios -- there are plenty more to contemplate which would cause an equivalent amount of chaos.

Preventing any or all of this by means of international diplomacy might at first glance seem to be a fool's errand. But it's certainly worth a try, considering what could be avoided if it were successful. Hammering out exactly what will and will not be allowed in cyberwarfare will be a tough task -- made even more tough by the knowledge that any such agreement would almost certainly have to be updated (at a minimum) every decade or so, to keep up with new technological developments.

America has lost a lot of its moral standing in the world, since 9/11. This is not a partisan problem, either. Both Republicans and Democrats alike have given their consent to practices which we used to consider not only illegal, but downright abhorrent and inhumane. This includes waterboarding and all the other Orwellian-named "enhanced interrogation techniques" (which we used to consider ourselves morally above using), to dropping bombs from remotely-controlled airplanes to assassinate people we consider fair targets (how would we feel if people in Peoria were being assassinated in this fashion?).

But while this might leave the U.S. open to cries of "hypocrisy" from other countries, leading the effort to define allowable cyberwarfare techniques would go a long way towards regaining some of that moral standing. America could make the case: "OK, look, we may have crossed a few lines in our war on terror, but a lot of this stuff is brand-new, so we just had the opportunity before other countries were faced with similar choices -- and now that we've had time to consider, we think there ought to be some rules to cover futuristic battlefields, both real and virtual."

America should be the one to call for another Geneva Convention in the cyberwar realm. "Let's lay down some rules" we could say to the rest of the world, and then we could all start creating a few definitions and banning certain tactics (like, for instance, a cyber attack on hospital management software -- which could grind hospitals' capacity to deal with emergencies to an absolute standstill). American politicians -- after secrets are revealed by leakers, of course -- always say "we welcome this conversation," from President Obama on down. But this conversation needs to include the whole world.

The whole effort could be doomed to failure, of course -- but this is always true of diplomacy. It could take a century to actually have any effect, as just the dates of the chemical weapons bans of 1899 and 1997 prove. But that doesn't mean that banning chemical weapons wasn't a worthwhile thing to attempt. We could indeed have to see a future cyber disaster of "World War I mustard gas" proportions before the nations of the world even begin to take such a thing seriously. In fact, it is very easy to be pessimistic about the chances for success.

But again, that doesn't mean it isn't worth the attempt. The "brave new world" of computer warfare -- in all its frightening aspects -- desperately needs some rules and limits. Communications spying and drone attacks are only the precursors for what could be eventually deployed against the United States. If we don't take the lead now in calling for some definition of what is humanely allowable even by countries at war with each other, we may seriously regret not doing so later.


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