Does Cyberwar Violate Human Rights?

By Matthew Harwood, Staff Editor

Over at Reason, Michael Weiss has an intriguing argument in relation to the cyberattacks on Estonia this spring: Cyberwar violates human rights.

Here's the context:

With a tiny population of 1.4 million, Estonia is almost entirely run on computers. The land that helped develop the free VOIP and instant messenger program Skype hosts wireless zones not just on cafe-lined streets, but in gas stations and remote national parks. Estonians bank, vote and pay their taxes online through digital identity cards that are scanned by easy insertion into slots in their laptops, devices that the country's "paperless" government uses to conduct cabinet meetings and draft legislation. Indeed, so proud was Estonia of its commitment to broadband efficiency—and the web's concomitant freedom of information—that its parliament passed a law in 2000 declaring Internet access a basic human right.

Then, in late April well through May, Estonia's digital infrastructure was attacked. Banks, political parties, and newspapers' computers were the recipients of cyberatttacks to bring their systems to a screeching halt. One bank, Hansabank, lost over  $1 million when its system was shut down for an hour. The targets can lead to only one conclusion: The attackers wanted to cripple Estonia.

Because Estonians, who rely on their digital infrastructure so thoroughly, had the foresight to symbolically and democratically declare Internet access a basic human right and because Estonia is a sovereign nation and member of the European Union, Weiss argues these attacks were much more than a national security breach, they were a fundamental attack on Estonians' human rights.

Many experts suspect the perpetrator of these cyberattacks was the Russian government in retaliation for Estonia's—once a colonial dependency of the Soviet Union—decision to move the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, which commemorates the Soviet Union's "liberation" of Estonia from the clutches of Nazi Germany during World War II.

As Weiss reminds us, cyberattacks like this represent more than just a possible example of Russia throwing its weight around against a tiny neighboring country; they are a real threat in the 21st century. The United States has been the victim of both Russian and Chinese cyberattacks, "Moonlight Maze" and "Titan Rain" respectively.

And with cyberwarfare being a new tactic in the age old human institution of war, Weiss implies it could have more deleterious effects than damaging a country's digital infrastructure, but could spiral into conventional war.

The problem, Weiss writes, is that international law hasn't caught up with technology and cyberwarfare. It's about time the international community took the issue seriously.


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