Cyberattacks can be ‘just war,’ according to leading experts at Religion News Service event

at the National Press Club on Monday.

WASHINGTON — Cyberattacks are the next level of warfare and can be considered pre-emptive in certain circumstances, according to a leading panel of experts hosted by Religion News Service (RNS) at the National Press Club on Monday.

RNS hosted a discussion on cyberattacks and the “just war theory,” which posits that war is morally justifiable if it meets a series of criteria.

“Just war asks why can you use force, when can you use it and how should it be governed,” said Bryan Hehir, Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Moral theory has changed over time, from the Roman Empire to the U.N. charter to technological change, which can mean many things. In the Middle Ages the crossbow was thought to be inhumane. The major change, though, was nuclear development. Some people argue that cyberwar is a step across another boundary. It creates another setting. How are we going to judge it? This kind of warfare is so different.”

“In a cyberattack, we can argue about the justification for force, but who do we attribute it to?” said Simone Petrella, chief cyberstrategy officer for CyberVista, a cybersecurity training and workforce development company. “For example, is it a particular server in a country? What and where is the attribution?”

Simone Petrella, chief cyberstrategy officer of CyberVista, speaks during a panel discussion on “Cyber Attacks and Just War Theory” at the National Press Club on May 22, 2017. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

The panel agreed that not all cyberattacks are created equal and noted the differences between criminal activity and nation-state activity.

“We know the Russians use cyber as elements of war. Look at what they did during their invasion into Georgia in 2008,” said Brig. Gen. David G. Reist, USMC (Ret.), program manager at Knowledge Management Inc. “Also, the Stuxnet virus was very careful when it was put in place that it had a self-destruct tool so there would be no collateral damage afterwards.”

“This ethical framework around cyberattacks and cyber war needs further study and development among ethicists, policymakers and society as a whole,” said Thomas Gallagher, CEO & Publisher of Religion News Service, the organizer and moderator of the panel.

The panel agreed that all cyberattacks and warfare are pressing issues and all voices must be heard.

“Any discussion around ethics and morality needs to include industry as every part of our infrastructure is connected,” said Petrella. “Public/private partnerships are critical and the private sector needs a seats at the table.”

Added Hehir: “The public needs to be part of the discussion, not just the specialists. The conversation needs to be as wide as possible.”

About Religion News Service
Religion News Service is an independent, nonprofit and award-winning source of global news on religion, spirituality, culture and ethics, reported by a staff of professional journalists. Founded in 1934, RNS seeks to inform readers with objective reporting and insightful commentary and is relied upon by secular and faith-based news organizations in a number of countries. RNS is affiliated with the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.

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