Cyber warfare is a fact of the modern world. However, there is no clear international law that distinguishes between warfare, terrorism, crime or vandalism. As a result, U.S. military cyber warriors are operating without the protections and restrictions their kinetic brethren enjoy under the Geneva Conventions.
The road to those agreements was long, but necessary and it needs to be trod again--before civilians suffer the consequences of unrestricted cyber warfare.
In the last decade, U.S. and international leaders have recognized the military implications of the growing threat. The United States established Cyber Command in 2009 and the Navy stood up the 10th Fleet in 2010 to direct cyber operations and defense. Ret. Adm. James Stavridis, the supreme allied commander for Europe and commander of NATO from 2009 to 2013, argued further for a separate service branch, a cyber force. However, a U.S. cyber force would be a service branch and combatant with no directly applicable international law of warfare.
After years of study, NATO only applies pre-cyber era international law to cyber operations, both conducted by and directed against states.
In 2008, NATO established the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, originally proposed by Estonia following a growing awareness of the vulnerability of NATO allies and partners to cyber attack, particularly by Russia. In 2009, the center hosted a conference in Tallinn, Estonia, with 20 international experts--almost exclusively from NATO countries--to seek a way to apply existing industrial-age international law to cyber warfare, resulting in the Tallinn Manual. While a laudable attempt to make progress, Russia has yet to endorse the NATO-developed rules on many issues but the Tallinn Manual process continues.
After every great war, there have been calls to ameliorate its new horrors. Can the United States and other developed nations see the potential danger of cyber warfare enough to contain it before a cyber Dresden? During World War II, the Allies bombed the war industry, railroad and communications center in the German city of Dresden. The incendiary attack of valid military targets resulted in massive collateral damage and over 20,000 dead. At that time, the most recent Geneva Convention had been signed in 1929, extending protections of soldiers and sailors in battle to prisoners of war. Air warfare had not yet been covered in spite of the experiences of World War I.
The world was horrified by the human catastrophe of World War II, particularly the massive civilian devastation...