Law in the Internet Society

World War III

-- By CharlotteSkerten - 05 Nov 2017

The internet and the bomb

In 2017, I participated in the UN negotiations for a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. Although the treaty does not expressly refer to the internet, the relationship between weapons of mass destruction and the internet warrants re-examination today. The internet was developed in response to the threat of nuclear strike during the Cold War. But it has evolved to such an extent that it now permeates and controls much of human life and government action. Among the many things the internet society has altered is the nature of, and our relationship with, weapons of mass destruction, including the nukes that inspired its creation. In particular, the way that the internet has developed has modified the manner in which nuclear weapons can be used, the very nature of weapons of mass destruction that are likely to be deployed in modern warfare, and who can control them. As a result, the potential consequences of our decision to ‘stop worrying and to love the bomb’ are even more catastrophic than could be imagined half a century ago.

The original threat: nuclear weapons

Nuclear weapons systems can be connected to an internet platform or air gapped. But neither option eliminates all security threats. Interference with nuclear weapons systems has been a risk since their inception, and does not necessarily require advanced technology (as demonstrated, for example, by the 2012 break in to a Tennessee nuclear plant by an 84-year-old nun). However, the internet society increases the risk of private and state interference with nuclear weapons systems, which in turn increases the likelihood of nuclear strike.

Many nuclear arsenals are now being ‘modernized’, including through increased connectivity to the rest of the war-fighting system. This introduces new vulnerabilities and dangers, including the risk of remote access through the internet. Like all complex technological systems, those designed for nuclear weapons are inherently flawed. They are designed, built, installed, maintained, and operated by humans. Hardware and software are often off-the-shelf, and there is never complete control over the supply chain for critical nuclear components. Today’s systems must also contend with all the other modern tools of cyber warfare, including spyware, malware, worms, bugs, viruses, corrupted firmware, logic bombs and Trojan horses.

On the other hand, the ‘Stuxnet’ attack in Iran illustrates that air gapping devices does not necessarily protect them from technological corruption by adversaries. The Stuxnet malware was spread through USB flash drives, and then between computers (irrespective of whether they were connected to the internet) to seek out and compromise the specific model of Siemens computers that ran the uranium-enriching centrifuges at the Nantanz nuclear plant. The size and sophistication of Stuxnet indicated that it was state-sponsored. But the development of online communities such as ‘Anonymous’ and ‘LulzSec’, combined with the democratization of technology and the ever-increasing availability of information online, demonstrates the growing potential for individuals to take action in areas that were once considered to be exclusively in the government domain.

The new threat: killer robots

The internet society has also allowed for the development of new weapons of mass destruction, including lethal autonomous weapons systems designed to select and attack targets without intervention by a human operator. These so-called ‘killer robots’ involve statistical analysis of data sets as a complement to algorithms that use the data to do something, including identifying a target (for example, through a hashtag) and firing an integrated weapon. Because each person active on the internet has now become a dense cluster of data points linked to other people’s clusters of data points, the physiology of the internet has created the perfect breeding ground for aggregating technologies to develop killer robots.

Some lethal autonomous weapons are already in use. For example, Samsung’s SGR-A1 sentry gun, capable of performing surveillance, voice-recognition, tracking and firing autonomously, is deployed along the border of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. But the potential for the development of killer robots into weapons of mass destruction is exponential, especially combined with the proliferation of non-military infrastructure. A future involving killer robots has been likened to scenes from the Terminator and Robocop movies. Allowing machines to 'decide' to actively kill humans would be devastating to both our security and freedom. Some experts have therefore insisted that artificial intelligence must be proactively regulated because of its “fundamental risk to the existence of civilization”.

Killer robots undoubtedly violate Asimov's First Law of Robotics. They would also violate international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflict, in particular the principle of distinction, which requires the ability to discriminate combatants from non-combatants, and proportionality, which requires that damage to civilians is proportional to the military aim. Like traditional weapons of mass destruction, killer robots have real potential to cause harm to innocent people (both in warfare and peacetime), and to global stability. But they also fundamentally differ. It would be nearly impossible to hold any individual or state to account for injury, death or war crimes caused by killer robots. The development of relatively cheap ‘intelligent’ tools with the ability to kill without human thought or emotion changes the hierarchy between humans and machines in the world order, with machines taking over effective control.


Many now believe that the next world war will take place exclusively over the internet. They may well be correct. But the development of North Korea’s nuclear program, and the US response, highlight that weapons of mass destruction remain one of the most serious threats to human existence. Modern warfare may well involve cold war tools like nukes, with vastly increased risks because of the internet society in which we now exist, or novel tools such as killer robots that exercise artificial intelligence. The ability to control weapons of mass destruction no longer lies only in the hands of governments, but nuclear systems may now also be controlled, and killer robots created, by civilians. The impetus for the internet's development was the risk to civilization posed by weapons of mass destruction. Fifty years on, we must reconsider whether the internet has in fact decreased the risk to human life posed by these weapons, or has instead compounded and multiplied it.

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r8 - 06 Apr 2018 - 20:55:41 - CharlotteSkerten
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