The cyber war code

Even as South Korea was picking up the pieces after an electronic attack which affected 32,000 computers, the term "cyber warfare" finally gained legitimacy this week. A newly published NATO manual recognised it as a formal mode of hostility and sought to place it in the legal framework that conditions international conflict. The Tallinn Manual: International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare is not an official document. It reflects the opinions of 20 researchers and practitioners in international law, but it was commissioned by NATO through its Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Estonia. It is the beginning of a deliberative process which should eventually produce an electronic version of the Geneva Conventions.

Publishing the manual from Estonia is extremely appropriate, since it has been the target of massive electronic attacks. In the spring of 2007, a controversy had broken out with Moscow over a World War II commemorative statue called the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn. Moscow saw itself as the liberator of the city. The city did not readily recall the alleged liberation and the issue boiled over into a riot called Bronze Night, which gained international attention. In retaliation, Russia launched cyber attacks crippling Estonian media, banks, the government and the legislature. It was the most significant state-sponsored weaponisation of the internet after Titan Rain, the allegedly Chinese attack on US networks that began in 2003.

For a decade, electronic aggression has been an established way for nations to get their dirty work done. Its incidence is rising as nations become more competitive. The current attack on South Korea is the third major incident there. Earlier attacks, in 2009 and 2011, were blamed on North Korea. Even the present attack may be attributed to it eventually. Government officials who revealed that the attacks originated from a Chinese IP address have been careful to insist that the perpetrators have not been identified. Other significant attacks in recent times have included allegedly Chinese attempts to hack US media and government offices and intrusions in Indian navy networks in Vishakhapatnam last year, when INS Arihant was undergoing trials off the port.

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