Rising Civilian Involvement in Cyber Warfare: Legal Implications and Solutions Explored during Expert Meeting

20 October 2023

In recent decades, civilians have become increasingly involved in activities closely linked to hostilities due to the ever-evolving nature of contemporary warfare. The initial findings of our joint initiative with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) indicate that the ongoing process of digitalization of our world has further accelerated this trend.

Today’s armed conflicts reveal a growing involvement of civilians through cyber and other digital operations. Civilians can directly participate in defensive or offensive cyber operations against specific targets. Alternatively, they can be indirectly involved through the deployment of bot programmes on external devices providing hackers (also known as bot herders) with remote control capabilities. Civilians will be often involved in armed conflict, either as part of a group – ranging from professionally organized groups to state-sponsored entities, criminal groups with varying degrees of internal organization, or loosely organized collectives – or as part of private technology companies.

Panelists at the expert meeting

These developments carry significant implications for civilian populations. They create confusion surrounding the identification of lawful military targets and entities that require protection against direct attacks. Consequently, civilians, civilian digital infrastructures, and services are at a higher risk of falling victim to erroneous, unnecessary, or unlawful attacks, or being subjected to other security measures. This in turn has consequences for civilians and civilian objects beyond those directly targeted, as attacks can pose risks to those relying on civilian digital goods and services, as well as those in proximity to the attacked digital infrastructures.

‘The ICRC is concerned about the growing involvement of civilians in digital operations related to armed conflicts. The more civilians take part in military operations, and the more civilian infrastructure is used for military purposes, the greater the risk of civilians and civilian infrastructure being targeted. ’ underlines Tilman Rodenhäuser, Legal Adviser at the ICRC.

From Cyber Groups in Modern Conflicts to Legal Dilemmas Confronting Tech Companies

Our recent expert meeting, conducted in collaboration with the ICRC, was specifically aimed at addressing the growing involvement of civilians in cyber and digital operations during armed conflicts. Over one and a half days, scholars, practitioners, and cyber experts delved into various aspects, including civilian cyber activities, the concept of 'direct participation in hostilities, limits on civilians' cyber activities under international humanitarian law (IHL), hacker groups in contemporary armed conflicts with discussions on their legal status and related state responsibilities. Additionally, the meeting addressed practical and legal challenges faced by technology companies operating in conflict-affected contexts.

These discussions form an integral part of our ongoing joint initiative with the ICRC on the digitalization of armed conflicts and contribute to the current analysis and understanding of how the law can play a role in mitigating the human cost of civilians' growing involvement in cyber and digital operations during armed conflicts.

Panelists at the expert meeting

Professor Marco Roscini, our Swiss IHL Chair who leads this research at the Geneva Academy, emphasized the urgency of the matter, stating, ‘This major issue is evolving very rapidly. Our aim, through our research and this meeting, is to assess the continued relevance of IHL in this context and to develop recommendations aimed at mitigating the identified risks and addressing new protection needs.’

The resulting report from this meeting, along with its executive summary, will be of interest to legal practitioners, scholars, political decision-makers, academics, researchers, lawyers, and technology experts. It will also inform the final set of recommendations emerging from this comprehensive research.

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