UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday called for the creation of a regulatory body charged with fighting electronic warfare campaigns that target civilians
While speaking at his alma mater, the University of Lisbon, the UN chief said a global set of rules that would help protect civilians from disinformation campaigns – many of which have revolutionized the way interested parties weaponise information through the use of the internet and social media networks.
State-sponsored computer hackers, including “Fancy Bear” and “Cozy Bear” – both controlled by Russia’s intelligence services, have disrupted multinational firms and public services, as well as political campaigns, and most recently the opening ceremonies of the ongoing Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games.
“Episodes of cyber warfare between states already exist. What is worse is that there is no regulatory scheme for that type of warfare. It is not clear how the Geneva Convention or international humanitarian law applies in these cases,” Guterres said while speaking at the University of Lisbon. “I am absolutely convinced that unlike the great battles of the past, which opened with a barrage of artillery or aerial bombardment, the next major war will begin with a massive cyber attack to destroy military capacity and to paralyse basic infrastructure, including electric networks.”
Cyber-warfare has moved to the forefront of military planning over the last decade. Russia’s GRU military intelligence unit successfully tested its ability to disrupt public services in Estonia and Georgia more than a decade ago and launch a successful online propaganda campaign in Ukraine in 2014, Western military planners have scrambled to counter the advances that Moscow has made in developing advanced cyber-warfare strategies.
NATO is in the process of cyberwar principles that will act as a strategic framework for guiding the alliance’s force reaction in the event of a crippling cyber attack to its command structure or the deployment of cyberweapons against one of the alliance allies. NATO command hopes to have a broad plan in place by 2019, but questions remain as the US administration under Donald Trump had continued with its lukewarm embrace of the 68-year-old North Atlantic Alliance.
During his speech in Lisbon, Gutteres offered to use the UN as a platform for scientists, programmers, and government representatives to develop rules that would help minimise the amount of access certain agents of war would have when trying to make contact with unwitting civilians.
Guterres said he believed it possible for leading computer specialists and like-minded lawmakers to created a set of rules that would “guarantee the more humane character” of a conflict involving information technology and help preserve cyberspace as “an instrument in the service of good”, but warned that time was not on their side as technological advances far outpace the traditional methods of working out universally accepted rules that include the Geneva Conventions of 1864-1949.