PARIS — Imagine if a foreign entity neutralized the public health system in the Paris region. Or if it went on to attack the electric grid, interfering with the meteorological services, manipulating French President Emmanuel Macron's emails and targeting the military and police communication systems. All from a computer keyboard. Nobody would get killed, at least not directly. No building destroyed. And yet, most commentators, even the most argumentative, would agree: This is an act of war.
A long time ago, in the pre-Internet era, France would have tried to identify the origin of the attack and would have entered into an armed conflict with those responsible, whether state or terrorist organization. This was charted territory, the physical world, one in which you could easily distinguish between between artillery shelling and the flight of a flock of starlings.
But the examples above belong to a different world: the silent world of cyberspace. No flesh or blood here, in this place that appeared long after the world's creation but where, thanks to the great digital revolution, a large part of our activities now take place.
And it is a dangerous place with daily confrontations. We're in a paradoxical era. Despite the constant Middle Eastern wars, there are fewer armed conflicts today than in the past, and they probably even claim fewer lives. On the other hand, cyberspace is growing increasingly conflictual. Cyber-weapons are more and more sophisticated. Might we even speak of a generalized state of cyber war? Most experts predict that it won't be long before a country responds to a cyber attack with conventional warfare.
This new area of conflicts between countries is very well described in Ramses 2018, the yearly state-of-the-world report by the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). In it, contributors Julien Nocetti and Nicolas Arpagian examine what they call "the dark side of the digital revolution."
The world created by the Internet giants has revived ideological political battles. It has breathed new life into propaganda, mass brainwashing and manipulation of the news. It didn't reinvent them. But it did strongly increase their ability to influence public opinion. Document theft still exists, but spyware has replaced James Bond.
The 2016 hacking of the U.S. Democratic party's emails continues to poison relations between Washington and Moscow. That same year, according to the The New York Times, hundreds, if not thousands, of fake U.S. Facebook accounts created by Russians were used to spread lies about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Hackers also accessed computers at Qatar's state news agency. They truncated remarks made by Qatar's emir, Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. The fake statements then served as an excuse for the boycott campaign led by Saudi Arabia against Qatar. Also for geopolitical motives, fake photographs of a massacre of Indian Muslims (actually victims of an earthquake in Tibet) circulated online. They served to keep tensions high between Pakistan and India. The work of Pakistani hackers?
The second front is more brutal, that of cyber attacks against companies, public infrastructures, or electrical grids of a country. Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine have already been targeted along with other places that didn't report it.
A lawless zone
In 2015, the United Nations Groups of Governmental Experts (GGEs) on cybersecurity observed a "spectacular increase in the number of malicious attacks against critical state infrastructures."
According to IFRI's experts, "We can easily compare the damages caused by a potential cyber attack with those caused by conventional shellfire." And the world's most powerful armies all have a cyberwarfare unit.
Cyberspace is practically a lawless zone. While international conventions exist for the use of conventional, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, there are none for proliferating cyber-weapons. The UN GGEs failed. Spyware, killer software and other digital bombs are easily available on pirate websites.
The UN is willing to expand its charter to include cyberspace. The stakes are huge: According to the IFRI, cyber attacks could compromise a region or a country's entire infrastructure and the servers that guarantee its functioning. And yet, "international cyberspace law is still in its embryonic stage," Julien Nocetti says. One of the main difficulties is the diversity of players, which makes it difficult to identify with certainty the origin of an attack.
A first step toward governance would require gathering leaders and the Internet giants around a table. The latter are the key players of cyberspace, and therefore of cyber-conflicts. Through their financial resources and the millions of people depending on them, these companies hold more power than many states. They must take part in the establishment of a code of conduct for cyberspace.