Ethics starts with determining the laws of war and trying to regulate what is considered legal in the eyes of international law. The additional protocols of the Geneva Convention in 1977 mentions the prevention of “an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination of thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated” (ICRC, 1977).
As a nation state, national security is one of the most important duties that involve protecting the government and its people. In the beginning, national security pertained to various types of military threats, while cyber security became a late addition to ongoing threats that no longer requires a declaration before taking action. Regardless of time and location, attacks can be conducted at any moment as long as there is access to the cyber world.
Conducting an offensive cyber warfare on a nation state can raise severe ethical issues for the public. Being completely different from any type of conventional weapon, the general population is at the greatest risk of being exposed to the destruction of its economy, energy, food, and critical infrastructure. A state’s critical infrastructure is composed of physical, non-physical, and cyber resources or support services that are necessary for society and its economy to function at its minimum standard.
Stuxnet is one of the earliest forms of cyber warfare where it achieved its goal of hindering Iran’s nuclear program for roughly a year. It was able to “launch an offensive on four companies” (Zetter, 2017) that had connections with the nuclear program. Delaying the progress of a nation state’s weapon capabilities might be one of the very few ethical attacks. Meanwhile, near-peer adversaries such as Russia has shown capabilities to interfere with elections and government affairs throughout the world and reap the benefits of chaos and instability.
In a way, cyber warfare against nation states have been long underway due to being a subject of uncertainty and the lack of enforcement by any international organization or law. This allows various nation state actors to exploit each other’s critical infrastructures in hopes of getting the results they need. A simple event such as temporary loss of water or power for prolonged periods could be just enough to cause public panic.
As stated in the Geneva Convention, there is a good possibility where cyber warfare can be viewed as unethical or illegal. The effects of an offensive cyber warfare is uncontrollable, and the damage to civilians and infrastructure can be difficult to assess. It must be acknowledged that legality issues play a major role in the cyber world. In order to prohibit unnecessary suffering, the international community must agree to develop proper laws that apply to the protection of civilian population and objects.