The ‘Gänseliesel’ (Goose Girlis), a historical fountain erected in 1901, represents the most well-known landmark of the city of Goettingen.

Information Warfare and Civilian Populations: How the Law of War Addresses a Fear of the Unknown

Lucian Dervan



Imagine a civilian communications system is being temporarily relied upon by an opposing military force for vital operations. If one launches a computer network attack against the communications system, the operation may disable the opposing force’s ability to function adequately and, as a result, prompt their surrender. The alternative course of action is to launch a traditional kinetic weapons attack in the hopes of inflicting enough casualties on the troops to induce surrender. Given these options, the law of war would encourage the utilization of the computer network attack because it would result in less unnecessary suffering. But is the same true if we are unsure of the collateral consequences of the computer network attack on a large civilian population that also relies on this communications system? For instance, because civilians use the same communications system to gather critical information, disabling the system might result in rioting, civil disorder, serious injuries, and deaths. Further, civilians may be unable to call for help, seek out medical assistance, or locate emergency response centers. Given these unknown yet potentially severe collateral consequences to civilians, it becomes less clear that a proportionality analysis under the law of war would favor the computer network attack over the traditional kinetic operation. In this article, Professor Lucian E. Dervan examines the application of the law of war to information operations and analyses the role of the Geneva Convention’s utilitarian goals in determining the validity of computer network attacks against dual-use civilian objectives.


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