Of the many developing issues at the intersections of media, information and diplomacy, one of the least understood and diplomatically problematic is that of cyber war. The threat of cyber war is the result of the growth of the information society. Perhaps, the most significant aspect of the information age is the rapid and expansive development of information and communication technologies (ICT). As noted several times at the 2016 Milton Wolf Seminar, the internet has come to play a variety of roles in modern life. According to panelist, Joan Barata, “it is not a medium, it is a platform where life takes place” and a critical structure for expression, narrative building, and strategic communication. As state and non-state actors increasingly utilize ICTs to create conflict and chaos, in what has become known as cyber war, one unique and minimally discussed response to the changing international relations landscape is that of cyber diplomacy. Cyber diplomacy, the inverse of cyberwar, is the use of the internet and other information and communication technologies to manage international relations with the same sensitivity and efficacy that has occurred through other diplomatic means. Both cyberwar and cyber diplomacy are globally challenging and create issues for law and policy making.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
Actors throughout the international community have utilized new information technologies in social and political realms in novel and often, unanticipated ways to develop what is now commonly known as cyber warfare.
In 2007, Estonia became the first state victim of an overt and coordinated assault on its information networks (Shakarian, 2013). For three weeks, thousands of computers flooded Estonian websites with data requests in increasingly larger waves. The requests first knocked out government websites, including, but not limited to those of the Prime Minister, the President, the Justice Ministry, and the Foreign Ministry. Eventually, the attacks spread to daily newspapers, broadcast television, internet service providers, hospitals, banks, universities, and public service providers, disabling emergency phones for fire and paramedic services for an hour. Eventually, Estonian officials were able to produce evidence suggesting that the Russian government was involved in these attacks, which prevented Estonia from countering Russian propaganda and making its to the world. As such, the Estonian government claimed that they were victims of cyber war, a novel and unregulated type of warfare.
The 2008 Russian-Georgian War marked the first case in history of a coordinated cyberspace domain attack synchronized with major combat actions. The war, short as it was, was the manifestation of years of tension between the two nations regarding geopolitical, legal, cultural, and economic factors, dating back to the 1992 South Ossetia and the 1993 Abkhazian Wars. In addition to the military operations waged against Georgia, 54 government sites related to communications, finance, and the government were attacked, making Georgia exceptionally vulnerable to (alleged) Russian interference (Hollis, 2008). Despite the lack of evidence and the continued denial by Russian officials, it is unlikely that the parallel attacks were coincidental. This historic war represents the rise of cyber war as indicants and/or components of military operations.
In 2010, a 500-kilobyte computer worm was discovered as it invaded computers around the world. The virus was especially sophisticated, including a specific attack vector limited to certain computers (Richardson 2011-2012). After several months of speculation about its purpose, the disproportionate number of computers infected in Iran revealed its geographic target (Richardson 2011-2012: 3). As the code was deciphered, it was revealed that the weapon was specifically designed to target nuclear facilities. Now commonly known as Stuxnet, the virus was used to infect at least 14 industrial sites in Iran, allowing its creators to spy on the industrial systems and causing the machines on site to tear themselves apart, despite the efforts of their human operators (Ibid: 3). As a novel warfare mechanism, Stuxnet was very precise, inflicting little to no damage on any other person, place, or system than the target, a rarity in the context of war. Despite continued speculation and suggestion that the United States was responsible, the developer and/or perpetrator remains anonymous.
These attacks represent a few, particularly significant instances of cyber war, but are not, by any means, representative of the scope, scale, or number of attacks that have occurred. The Center for Strategic and International Studies began keeping a list of cyber war since 2006, focusing specifically on attacks against government agencies, defense and high technology companies, or economic crimes with damages greater than one million dollars. Last updated in March of 2014, the list included more than 150 different cases of cyber war. However, in addition to these highly technical and economically devastating instances, cyber war has also come to encompass narrative shaping and agenda setting attacks.
For example, in the 2008-09 Israel Hamas War, the importance of cyber space and new media as a weapon became increasingly clear. In December 2008, Israel launched a new operation to stop missile strikes in southern Israel, originated from Gaza (Shakarian, 2013). In conjunction with the air strikes, Israel constructed an information campaign. In its initial kinetic attack, Israel’s air assault took out 50 Hamas targets. Two days later the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched a YouTube channel with video logs of personnel, humanitarian missions, and gun videos. The Jewish Internet Defense Force encouraged the Jewish Diaspora to become active users of the internet and new media, and directed efforts against the new media of the opposition. In response, Hamas and its supports utilized Twitter, digital images, blogs, and a new site, paltube.com, to document the impact and devastation of the Israeli attacks. These and similar strategies have undeniably been employed by political and terrorist groups that are at the center of modern media attention, diplomacy strategies throughout the international community, as well as discussions at the 2016 Milton Wolf Seminar.
Implications for Diplomatic Relations
As cyber warfare becomes more prevalent, it has increasing implications for diplomatic relations. For example, as terrorist groups and other non state actors continue to increase their role in international relations, they utilize the internet and other information technologies to publicize attacks, recruit supporters, and construct an international narrative like that of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Theoretically, diplomacy could serve as a principle means of thwarting cyber war, as it has been used throughout history to prevent and/or minimize the spread and impact of warfare. In the same ways that actors throughout the international community take advantage of the internet to achieve their social, economic, and military objects, the internet and other information and communication technologies have the power and potential to foster international diplomacy.
In modern times, the internet facilitates many cross border negotiations and allows foreign ministries to engage and discuss the varied and contentious issues at the center of their relations, including issues that could and potentially have led to cyber attacks. In addition to saving time and costs for the vested stakeholders, the internet allows for less antagonistic negotiations, often affording the parties the cooling time needed to most effectively engage. Cyber diplomacy also makes it much easier to handle internal national communications with diplomats located around the world. The internet has made it easy to share and receive information through consular web sites and emails. Having such convenient and responsive access allows consulates and diplomats to take quick action to meet the demands at hand.
As cyber war remains an increasing and pressing threat, and deterrence the dominant approach governing many international relations, the internet will continue to be a key strategic mechanism for diplomacy. And despite the limited (but growing) research on cyber war, international humanitarian law, and cyber diplomacy, it is undeniable that each have interrelated and far-reaching implications on each other and on the security of the international community. In the same ways that technologies, events, and non-state actors are dramatically changing the landscape of modern warfare, they are making diplomacy an iterative and recursive process that requires rethinking traditional boundaries, laws, and processes. In looking back at the short history of cyber war, it becomes clear that diplomacy is necessary. But because of the novelty, and despite its potential, the emergence of cyber diplomacy will likely continue to be limited by the institutional and systemic issues that plague international relations and foster the continued growth of cyber warfare and other non-diplomatic approaches and responses.
Click here to view and infographic on Cyber Diplomacy produced by Norwich University’s Online Masters in Diplomacy.
Hollis, David, Cyberwar Case Study: Georgia 2008, Small Wars Journal (2008)
Richardson, John. “Stuxnet as Cyberwarfare: Applying the Law of War to the Virtual Battlefield.” 29 J. Marshall J. Computer & Info. L. 1 (2011-2012).
Shakarian, Paulo, Shakarian, Jana & Ruel, Andrew, Introduction to Cyber-Warfare: A Multidisciplinary Approach (2013)
Ivory Mills is a Law & Science Fellow and dual degree candidate pursuing a PhD in Media, Technology, and Society and a JD at Northwestern Law. With interests in both theory and practice, she investigates international and comparative ICT law and policy from an organizational and interorganizational perspective. Interdisciplinary in nature, her work draws upon the technological, economic, legal, social, and cultural implications of corporate, civil society, and regulatory institutions in the international system. Ivory holds a BA in International Studies from Spelman College and is a Fellow with the Institute for International Public Policy, Cohort 16.