Scenario 03: Cyber operation against the power grid

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[INSERT PHOTO] Intelligence services of State B compromise the supply chain of an industrial control system in State A, thereby gaining access to a part of its electric power grid. Subsequent attacks bring down the grid, leading to prolonged blackouts. The scenario considers whether such incidents may violate, among others, the prohibition of the use of force in international relations, the prohibition of intervention in the internal affairs of States, and the obligation to respect the sovereignty of other States. Specific consideration is given to the existence of a standalone obligation to refrain from attacking critical infrastructure of other States through cyber means.

Scenario

Keywords

Critical infrastructure, intervention, sovereignty, use of force

Facts

Government-owned company X is responsible for the distribution of electricity across a large part of the territory of State A. Accordingly, its infrastructure has been designated as “critical national infrastructure” by the domestic law.

Delivery of computers procured as part of the modernisation of the industrial control systems (ICS) used by company X is, unbeknownst to either of the contractual parties, compromised by attackers who succeed in installing concealed remote-control equipment in the computers in question. Once the computers are integrated in the ICS, the attackers are able to remotely monitor the activities in the technical control centre and to assume control over the infrastructure of company X without the staff knowing.

In the meantime, the relationship between States A and B, frail due to a shared history and a complicated ethnic composition of State A, whom State B periodically accuses of mistreating its large ethnic minority, significantly deteriorates. At one point, the distribution of power to tens of thousands of households in State A suddenly comes to a halt.

Initially, the technical control centre staff at company X are unable to locate the source of the problem. All reports generated by the ICS suggest normal operation. The controllers are unable to fix the problem remotely and technicians have to be dispatched to individual locations to perform a manual restart and thus to gradually restore the functionality of the network. In the meantime, the government sends its emergency responders and provides generators to the most affected residents.

As a consequence of the operation, many households are left without electricity for days, resulting in significant inconvenience for the local residents. However, the power cuts are limited to residential areas and no physical damage or personal injury is reported from any of the affected areas.

Much later, the source of the vulnerability is identified and the remote-control equipment is found and removed from the ICS at company X. Forensic analysis of the removed equipment determines that it was designed, installed, and controlled by the intelligence services of State B. State A is a member of a collective self-defence alliance O.

Examples

  • [YEAR] Black Energy
  • [YEAR] Stuxnet
  • [YEAR] Steel mill in Germany

Legal analysis

The analysis in this scenario focusses on the responsibility of State B for potential violations of international law as against State A. It assumes that the cyber operation against company X was attributable to State B. Given the facts of the scenario, this assumption is not particularly controversial. As noted, the technical investigation of the incident showed that the equipment used to compromise the grid had been installed by the intelligence service of State B. Pursuant to Article 4 of the ILC Articles on State Responsibility for Internationally Wrongful Acts, the conduct of any State organ, irrespective of its position within the State, its functions and its character as an organ within the central government or territorial unit, shall be considered an act of that State. Intelligence services undoubtedly form part of the executive power and their conduct is thus attributable to the relevant State under Article 4. Accordingly, the remainder of the analysis considers which specific rules of international law, if any, may have been breached by the operation in question.

Use of force

Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prescribes States to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations”.[1] This prohibition is reflective of customary international law[2] and it is frequently described as a peremptory norm of international law.[3] However, the notion of “force” in this context is limited to armed force[4], and to operations whose scale and effects are comparable to the use of armed force.[5]

At present, the law is unsettled on the issue whether cyber operations with no physical effects may amount to a prohibited use of force. It has been argued that disruptive cyber operations of this kind fall under the scope of Article 2(4) if the resulting disruption is “significant enough to affect state security”.[6] Undoubtedly, one of the purposes of the prohibition of force under international law is to safeguard the national security of the potentially affected States.[7] However, many forms of outside interference including various forms of political and economic coercion may affect the national security of the victim State. And yet, the drafters of the UN Charter had expressly rejected the proposal to extend the prohibition of force beyond the strict confines of military (or armed) force.[8]

Admittedly, the notion of “force”, like other generic terms in treaties of unlimited duration, should be presumed to have an evolving meaning.[9] However, there is little State practice supporting the claim that its meaning has by now evolved to include non-destructive cyber operations against critical national infrastructure.[10] In fact, to date no victim State of an operation of this kind has suggested that the operation would have amounted to a use of force.[11]

Even if an operation does not meet the threshold of the use of force, it may still be considered a violation of other rules of international law.[12] In this regard, the prohibition of non-intervention, the obligation to respect the sovereignty of other States, and the obligation to refrain from attacking other States’ critical infrastructure are all of potential relevance.

The scenario notes that the cyber operation against company X had caused significant inconvenience to many households in State A. The blackout must also have resulted in economic damage to company X and other actors on State A’s territory, likely including the State itself. However, there is no indication of actual physical damage having occurred or of any injury to individuals as a result of the operation. Therefore, the principal legal question is whether such forms of interference may be categorized as a use of force inconsistent with Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. As noted, the law is unsettled in this regard and a clear conclusion cannot be made at present.

In any event, the characterization of an incident of this nature as amounting to a use of force would be of limited consequence in the present scenario. This is because even if a particular act by a State qualifies as prohibited force, the victim State and its allies may only respond in self-defence if the said act is additionally of sufficient gravity to amount to an “armed attack”,[13] and even then, the permitted response is further limited by the conditions of necessity and proportionality.[14] However, the lack of destructive effects in State A strongly militates against the qualification of the cyber operation by State B as an “armed attack” under international law.[15]

Moreover, the fact that the source of the disruption was only identified after the disruptive effects had been addressed means that at that point, it could no longer be said that a use of force in self-defence by State A or by alliance O was necessary to repel an ongoing attack by State B.[16] Of course, State A would still be entitled to call upon the UN Security Council to qualify the cyber operation as having amounted to a “breach of the peace” and to decide on measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.[17]

However, the spectrum of unilateral responses available to State A under international law is otherwise identical to those available in response to violations of international law other than the prohibition of force. It is thus arguably unnecessary to conclusively determine if the cyber operation against State A did in fact cross the threshold of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, as long as the relevant conduct breached other applicable international legal rules. This is what the remainder of the analysis turns to.

Prohibition of intervention

The principle of non-intervention prohibits States from intervening in the internal or external affairs of other States. Prohibited intervention was authoritatively defined by the International Court of Justice in the judgment on the merits in the 1986 case Nicaragua v United States:

A prohibited intervention must … be one bearing on matters in which each State is permitted, by the principle of State sovereignty, to decide freely. One of these is the choice of a political, economic, social and cultural system, and the formulation of foreign policy. Intervention is wrongful when it uses methods of coercion in regard to such choices, which must remain free ones.[18]

Two elements follow from this understanding. The first is that in order for an act (a term that is wide enough to include a cyber operation) to qualify as prohibited intervention, it must bear on those matters in which States are allowed to decide freely (the so-called domaine réservé of States).[19] As the ICJ ruling explains, the spectrum of such issues is particularly broad and it includes choices of political, economic, social, and cultural nature.[20]

The second element of prohibited intervention is that the act in question must be coercive in nature. There is no generally accepted definition of “coercion” in international law. However, as per the analysis in Tallinn Manual 2.0, the “key is that the coercive act must have the potential for compelling the target State to engage in an action that it would otherwise not take (or refrain from taking an action it would otherwise take)”.[21]

It is unclear whether State B’s act had a bearing on State A’s domaine réservé in the present case (the first prong of the test). State A would have to establish that “the act in question [was] designed to undermine [its] authority over the domaine réservé”.[22] If, for instance, it transpired that State B designed the operation with the specific aim to bring to an end the ethnic discrimination by organs of State A, then this would bring it within the protected sphere of matters, fulfilling the first prong of the test.

As for the element of coercion, it depends, as above, on the purpose of the operation. If it was designed to compel State A to modify its policing practice, then (whether or not this outcome was in fact achieved) the second prong of the test would have been fulfilled, too.[23]

Obligation to respect the sovereignty of other States

Definition

  1. UN Charter, Art 2(4).
  2. ICJ, Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v US) (Merits) [1986] ICJ Rep 14, paras 187–90; Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (Advisory Opinion) [2004] ICJ Rep 136, para 87.
  3. See, eg, ILC Yearbook of the ILC, 1966, vol II, 247 (“the law of the Charter concerning the prohibition of the use of force in itself constitutes a conspicuous example of a rule in international law having the character of jus cogens”); Gray __; Corten __; O Dörr and A Randelzhofer, ‘Article 2(4)’ in B Simma et al (eds), The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary (3rd edn, OUP 2012) vol I, 231, para 67 (“the prohibition of the use of force laid down in Art. 2 (4) is usually acknowledged in State practice and legal doctrine to have a peremptory character, and thus to be part of the international ius cogens”).
  4. O Dörr and A Randelzhofer, ‘Article 2(4)’ in B Simma et al (eds), The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary (3rd edn, OUP 2012) vol I, 208, para 16 (“The term [‘force’] does not cover any possible kind of force, but is, according to the correct and prevailing view, limited to armed force.”).
  5. Cf. Tallinn Manual 2.0, rule 69 (“A cyber operation constitutes a use of force when its scale and effects are comparable to non-cyber operations rising to the level of a use of force.”).
  6. M Roscini, Cyber Operations and the Use of Force in International Law (OUP 2014) 55.
  7. [ADD REF].
  8. Documents of the United Nations Conference on International Organization (1945), vol VI, 334.
  9. Cf. ICJ, Dispute regarding Navigational and Related Rights (Costa Rica v Nicaragua) Judgment [2009] ICJ Rep 213, para 66 (“[W]here the parties have used generic terms in a treaty, the parties necessarily having been aware that the meaning of the terms was likely to evolve over time, and where the treaty has been entered into for a very long period or is ‘of continuing duration’, the parties must be presumed, as a general rule, to have intended those terms to have an evolving meaning”).
  10. However, such claims are occasionally made in the scholarship: see, eg, M Roscini, Cyber Operations and the Use of Force in International Law (OUP 2014) 59; [ADD FURTHER REF].
  11. [ADD REF].
  12. Cf. US, State Department Legal Advisor Brian Egan, International Law and Stability in Cyberspace, Speech at Berkeley Law School (10 November 2016), 13 (“In certain circumstances, one State’s non-consensual cyber operation in another State’s territory could violate international law, even if it falls below the threshold of a use of force.”) (emphasis original); UK, Attorney General Jeremy Wright QC MP, Cyber and International Law in the 21st Century, Speech (23 May 2018) (“In certain circumstances, cyber operations which do not meet the threshold of the use of force but are undertaken by one state against the territory of another state without that state’s consent will be considered a breach of international law.”).
  13. UN Charter, Art 51.
  14. See, eg, ICJ, Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v US) (Merits) [1986] ICJ Rep 14, para 194; ICJ, Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons Case (Advisory Opinion) [1996] ICJ Rep 226, para 41; ICJ, Oil Platforms (Iran v US) [2003] ICJ Rep 161, para 43.
  15. ICJ, Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v US) (Merits) [1986] ICJ Rep 14, para 195 (holding that an operation must be characterized by sufficient “scale and effects” in order to qualify as an “armed attack”); but see Tallinn Manual, commentary to rule 71, para 12 (noting that some experts held “the view that a cyber operation directed against a State’s critical infrastructure that causes severe, albeit not destructive, effects would qualify as an armed attack“).
  16. Cf G Nolte and A Randelzhofer, ‘Article 51’ in B Simma et al (eds), The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary (3rd edn, OUP 2012) vol II, 1426–27, para 60 (noting that the use of force in self-defence is limited to ending the attack so that the specific impulse from which the attack emerged is no longer present).
  17. See UN Charter, Art 39.
  18. ICJ, Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v US) (Merits) [1986] ICJ Rep 14, para 205.
  19. See, eg, KS Ziegler, “Domaine Réservé”, in R Wolfrum (ed), Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (OUP 2008) (updated April 2013) (defining the domaine réservé as those “areas where States are free from international obligations and regulation”).
  20. ICJ, Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v US) (Merits) [1986] ICJ Rep 14, para 205.
  21. Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 66, para 21.
  22. Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 66, para 11.
  23. Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 66, para. 29 (“the fact that a coercive cyber operation fails to produce the desired outcome has no bearing on whether [the prohibition of intervention] has been breached”).
Sovereignty
Sovereignty is a core principle of international law. According to a widely accepted definition of the term in the 1928 Island of Palmas arbitral award,
[s]overeignty in the relations between States signifies independence. Independence in regard to a portion of the globe is the right to exercise therein, to the exclusion of any other State, the functions of a State.[1]
Multiple declarations by the UN,[2] NATO,[3] OSCE,[4] the European Union,[5] and individual States have confirmed that international law applies in cyberspace. Accordingly, so too does the principle of sovereignty. However, there is some debate as to whether this principle operates as a standalone rule of international law, the breach of which gives rise to state responsibility.
  • For the proponents of this view, the prohibition on violating the sovereignty of other States is a substantive primary rule of international law, the breach of which is an internationally wrongful act. This view was unanimously accepted by the experts who prepared the Tallinn Manual 2.0.[6] It has also been adopted by several States including Austria,[7] the Czech Republic,[8] Finland,[9] France,[10] Germany,[11] Iran,[12] and the Netherlands.[13]
  • By contrast, the opposing view is that sovereignty is a principle of international law that may guide State interactions, but it does not amount to a standalone primary rule.[14] This view has now been adopted by one State, the United Kingdom,[15] and has been endorsed by the U.S. Department of Defense General Counsel.[16] By this approach, cyber operations cannot violate sovereignty as a rule of international law, although they may constitute prohibited intervention, use of force, or other internationally wrongful acts.

The remainder of this section proceeds on the basis of the former “sovereignty-as-rule” approach. Those espousing the latter “sovereignty-as-principle” approach should refer to other relevant sections of the legal analysis (such as that on the prohibition of intervention).

It is understood that sovereignty has both an internal and an external component.[17] In the cyber context, the “internal” facet of sovereignty entails that “[a] State enjoys sovereign authority with regard to the cyber infrastructure, persons, and cyber activities located within its territory, subject to its international legal obligations.”[18][19]

As a general rule, each State must respect the sovereignty of other States.[20] It is clear that a cyber operation with severe destructive effects, comparable to a “non-cyber” armed attack or a use of force against a State, constitutes a violation of its sovereignty; however, with more subtle cyber operations, the question is far from settled.[21]

The following modalities, highlighted in the Tallinn Manual 2.0, represent different ways of determining what a “sovereignty violation” might mean in the context of cyber operations:

  1. A State organ conducting cyber operations against a target State or entities or persons located there while physically present in the target State's territory violates the target State's sovereignty.[22] This was agreed by all Experts drafting the Manual; however, “a few” of the Experts thought that the extensive State practice carved out an exception for espionage operations.[23]
  2. Causation of physical damage or injury by remote means;[24] again, “a few” Experts took the position that this is a relevant but not a determinative factor by itself.[25]
  3. Causation of a loss of functionality of cyber infrastructure: although the Tallinn Manual 2.0 experts agreed that a loss of functionality constituted “damage” and thus a breach of sovereignty, no consensus could be achieved as on the precise threshold for a loss of functionality (the necessity of reinstallation of operating system or other software was proposed but not universally accepted);[26] Below this threshold, there was no agreement among the Experts whether operations that do not cause physical consequences or a loss of functionality qualify as a violation of sovereignty.[27]
  4. Interference with data or services that are necessary for the exercise of "inherently governmental functions";[28] although the Experts could not conclusively define the term "inherently governmental functions", they agreed that, for example, the conduct of elections would so qualify.[29]
  5. Usurpation of "inherently governmental functions", such as exercise of law enforcement functions in another State’s territory without justification.[30]

The Tallinn Manual’s view of what constitutes a violation of sovereignty has been expressly endorsed by several States including Germany[31] and the Netherlands.[32] An alternative test has been proposed by France, which argues that a breach of sovereignty occurs already when there is “any unauthorised penetration by a State of [the victim State’s] systems”.[33]

Attributing the relevant cyber operation to a State different from the target State is a necessary prerequisite for qualifying the cyber operation as a violation of the target State's sovereignty.

Whether non-State actors can violate territorial sovereignty on their own is a matter of disagreement.[34]

Publicly available national positions that address this issue include: National position of Australia (2020) (2020), National position of Brazil (2021) (2021), National position of the Czech Republic (2020) (2020), National position of Estonia (2019) (2019), National position of Estonia (2021) (2021), National position of Finland (2020) (2020), National position of France (2019) (2019), National position of Germany (2021) (2021), National position of Iran (2020) (2020), National position of Israel (2020) (2020), National position of Japan (2021) (2021), National position of Kenya (2021) (2021), National position of the Netherlands (2019) (2019), National position of New Zealand (2020) (2020), National position of Norway (2021) (2021), National position of Romania (2021) (2021), National position of Singapore (2021) (2021), National position of Switzerland (2021) (2021), National position of the United Kingdom (2018) (2018), National position of the United Kingdom (2021) (2021), National position of the United States of America (2012) (2012), National position of the United States of America (2016) (2016), National position of the United States of America (2020) (2020).

National positions

Australia (2020)

"To the extent that a State enjoys the right to exercise sovereignty over objects and activities within its territory, it necessarily shoulders corresponding responsibilities to ensure those objects and activities are not used to harm other States."[35]

Brazil (2021)

"State sovereignty is one of the founding principles of international law. As the ICJ has stated in the Corfu Channel Case, “between independent States, the respect for territorial sovereignty is an essential foundation for ‘international relations’”. It is applicable as a standalone rule, including to the use of ICTs by States, and entails an independent obligation of “every State to respect the territorial sovereignty of others”. Currently, there is neither broad state practice nor sufficient opinio juris to generate new customary international norm allowing for the violation of State sovereignty, including by means of ICTs.

Violations of State sovereignty by another State, including by means of ICTs, constitute an internationally wrongful act and entail the international responsibility of the State in violation. Interceptions of telecommunications, for instance, whether or not they are considered to have crossed the threshold of an intervention in the internal affairs of another State, would nevertheless be considered an internationally wrongful act because they violate state sovereignty. Similarly, cyber operations against information systems located in another State’s territory or causing extraterritorial effects might also constitute a breach of sovereignty."[36]

Czech Republic (2020)

"[...]the Czech Republic recalls that the principles of sovereignty and sovereign equality of States are cornerstones of the UN Charter and thus concurs with the conclusion contained in the report of the UN GGE that in their use of ICT´s States are obliged to observe principles of international law, including the principle of sovereignty. The Czech Republic concurs with those considering the principle of sovereignty as an independent right and the respect to sovereignty as an independent obligation.

The Czech Republic firmly believes that under this principle States may freely exercise without interference in any form by another State both aspects of sovereignty in cyberspace, be it an internal one, with the exclusive jurisdiction over the ICTs located on its territory, or the external one, including the determination of its foreign policy, subject only to obligations under international law. The Czech Republic considers the following cyber operations in a State’s territory as violation of its sovereignty, if attributable to another State:

A. a cyber operation causing death or injury to persons or significant physical damage;

B.a cyber operation causing damage to or disruption of cyber or other infrastructure with a significant impact on national security, economy, public health or environment;

C.a cyber operation interfering with any data or services which are essential for the exercise of inherently governmental functions, and thereby significantly disrupting the exercise of those functions; for example, distributing ransomware which encrypts the computers used by a government and thus significantly delaying the payment of retirement pensions;

D. cyber operation against a State or entities or persons located therein, including international organisations, conducted by a physically present organ of another State;"[37]

Estonia (2019)

"Sovereignty entails not only rights, but also obligations."[38]

Estonia (2021)

Sovereignty as a fundamental principle of international law applies in cyberspace.

"The 2013 and 2015 GGE consensus reports underscore that sovereignty and the international norms and principles that flow from it apply to state conduct of ICT-related activities. In addition, the 2013 GGE emphasised the importance of international law, the Charter of the UN and the principle of sovereignty as the basis for the use of ICTs by states.

States have territorial sovereignty over the ICT infrastructure and persons engaged in cyber activities on their territory. However, states’ right to exercise sovereignty on their territory is not unlimited; states must respect international law, including human rights obligations. States also bear the responsibility to comply with legal obligations flowing from sovereignty – for example, the responsibility not to breach the sovereignty of other states and to take reasonable efforts to ensure that their territory is not used to adversely affect the rights of other states. The principle of sovereignty is also closely linked with the principle of non-intervention and the principles of the prohibition of the threat or use of force.

The violation of sovereignty through cyber means can breach international law, and therefore may give the victim state the right to take measures, including countermeasures. Views on what constitutes a breach of sovereignty in cyberspace differ. Malicious cyber operations can be complex, cross several jurisdictions and may not always produce physical effects on targeted infrastructure."[39]

Finland (2020)

"It is undisputed that the principle of State sovereignty applies in cyberspace. While cyberspace as a whole cannot be subject to appropriation by any State, each State has jurisdiction over the cyber infrastructure and the persons engaged in cyber activities within its territory."

"Finland sees sovereignty as a primary rule of international law, a breach of which amounts to an internationally wrongful act and triggers State responsibility. This rule is fully applicable in cyberspace. Whether an unauthorized cyber intrusion violates the target State’s sovereignty depends on its nature and consequences and is subject to a case-by-case assessment."[40]

France (2019)

"Cyberattacks may constitute a violation of sovereignty. The international norms and principles that flow from State sovereignty apply to the use of ICT by States and to their territorial jurisdiction over ICT infrastructure. France exercises its sovereignty over the information systems located on its territory".[41]

"Any cyberattack against French digital systems or any effects produced on French territory by digital means by a State organ, a person or an entity exercising elements of governmental authority or by a person or persons acting on the instructions of or under the direction or control of a State constitutes a breach of sovereignty."[42]

"The principle of sovereignty applies to cyberspace. France exercises its sovereignty over the information systems located on its territory. The gravity of a breach of sovereignty will be assessed on a case-by-case basis in accordance with French cyberdefence governance arrangements in order to determine possible responses in compliance with international law".[43]

Germany (2021)

"The legal principle of State sovereignty applies to States’ activities with regard to cyberspace. State sovereignty implies, inter alia, that a State retains a right of regulation, enforcement and adjudication (jurisdiction) with regard to both persons engaging in cyber activities and cyber infrastructure on its territory. It is limited only by relevant rules of international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Germany recognizes that due to the high degree of cross-border interconnectedness of cyber infrastructures, a State’s exercise of its jurisdiction may have unavoidable and immediate repercussions for the cyber infrastructure of other States. While this does not limit a State’s right to exercise its jurisdiction, due regard has to be given to potential adverse effects on third States.

By virtue of sovereignty, a State’s political independence is protected and it retains the right to freely choose its political, social, economic and cultural system. Inter alia, a State may generally decide freely which role information and communication technologies should play in its governmental, administrative and adjudicative proceedings. Foreign interference in the conduct of elections of a State may under certain circumstances constitute a breach of sovereignty or, if pursued by means of coercion, of the prohibition of wrongful intervention. Moreover, by virtue of its sovereignty, a State may decide freely over its foreign policy also in the field of information and communication technologies.

Furthermore, a State’s territorial sovereignty is protected. Due to the rootedness of all cyber activities in the actions of human beings using physical infrastructure, cyberspace is not a deterritorialized forum. In this regard, Germany underlines that there are no independent ‘cyber borders’ incongruent with a State’s physical borders which would limit or disregard the territorial scope of its sovereignty. Within its borders, a State has the exclusive right – within the framework of international law – to fully exercise its authority, which includes the protection of cyber activities, persons engaging therein as well as cyber infrastructures in the territory of a State against cyber and non-cyber-related interferences attributable to foreign States."[44]

"Germany agrees with the view that cyber operations attributable to States which violate the sovereignty of another State are contrary to international law. In this regard, State sovereignty constitutes a legal norm in its own right and may apply directly as a general norm also in cases in which more specific rules applicable to State behaviour, such as the prohibition of intervention or the use of force, are not applicable. Violations of State sovereignty may inter alia involve its territorial dimension; in this regard, the following categories of cases may be relevant (without excluding the possibility of other cases):

Germany essentially concurs with the view proffered, inter alia, in the Tallinn Manual 2.0 that cyber operations attributable to a State which lead to physical effects and harm in the territory of another State constitute a violation of that State’s territorial sovereignty. This encompasses physical damage to cyber infrastructure components per se and physical effects of such damage on persons or on other infrastructure, i.e. cyber or analogue infrastructure components connected to the damaged cyber component or infrastructure located in the vicinity of the damaged cyber infrastructure (provided a sufficient causal link can be established).

Germany generally also concurs with the view expressed and discussed in the Tallinn Manual 2.0 that certain effects in form of functional impairments with regard to cyber infrastructures located in a State’s territory may constitute a violation of a State’s territorial sovereignty. In Germany’s view, this may also apply to certain substantial non-physical (i.e. software-related) functional impairments. In such situations, an evaluation of all relevant circumstances of the individual case will be necessary. If functional impairments result in substantive secondary or indirect physical effects in the territory of the target State (and a sufficient causal link to the cyber operation can be established), a violation of territorial sovereignty will appear highly probable.

In any case, negligible physical effects and functional impairments below a certain impact threshold cannot – taken by themselves – be deemed to constitute a violation of territorial sovereignty.

Generally, the fact that a piece of critical infrastructure (i.e. infrastructure which plays an indispensable role in ensuring the functioning of the State and its society) or a company of special public interest in the territory of a State has been affected may indicate that a State’s territorial sovereignty has been violated. However, this cannot in and of itself constitute a violation, inter alia because uniform international definitions of the terms do not yet exist. Also, cyber operations in which infrastructures and/or companies which do not qualify as ‘critical’ or ‘of particular public interest’ are affected may likewise violate the territorial sovereignty of a State."[45]

Iran (2020)

"Article II: Sovereignty Policies of Armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran

1. The Islamic Republic of Iran has developed its sovereignty fields consistent with necessary capabilities for protection of its strategic military, economic, social, cultural, and political authority. In doing so, the development of expertise and advanced cyber tools for active and deterrent cyber-defense is, among others, one of the significant priorities for the protection of the strategic authority of the state.

2. Rules of modern international law imply the existence of limited territory in geographical borders of states exercising sovereignty or at least jurisdiction within those borders. According to the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the territorial sovereignty and jurisdiction of the states are also extended to all elements of the cyberspace.

3. Any intentional use of cyber-force with tangible or non-tangible implications which is or can be a threat to the national security or may, due to political, economic, social, and cultural destabilization, result in destabilization of national security constitutes a violation of the sovereignty of the state.

4. Any utilization of cyberspace if and when involves unlawful intrusion to the (public or private) cyber structures which is under the control of another state, maybe constituted as the violation of the sovereignty of the targeted state.

5. The sovereignty of states is not an extra-legal matter. It shall be interpreted under the other fundamental legal principles such as non-intervention, good faith, self-determination, and other basic principles. It must be kept in mind that the sovereignty of states is subject to the principle of equality and the sovereignty of any state is not above the sovereignty of the other states. Therefore, any limiting and freezing measure, including sanctions, constitutes the violation of the sovereignty of independent states because of not respecting the sovereignty of target states."[46]

Israel (2020)

"To begin with, there are diverging views regarding whether sovereignty is merely a principle, from which legal rules are derived, or a binding rule of international law in itself, the violation of which could be considered an internationally wrongful act. This issue has many facets, and while I will not offer any definitive position for the time being, I would like to stress a number of important points.

A second, and related, point is that States undoubtedly have sovereign interests in protecting cyber infrastructure and data located in their territory. However, States may also have legitimate sovereign interests with respect to data outside their territory. For example, as governments store more and more of their data by using cloud services provided by third parties, whose servers are located abroad, how do we describe the interest that they have in relation to that data? Would the interest in protecting the data not be a sovereign interest in this case as well? Or, alternatively, when a State conducts a criminal investigation and needs to access data located abroad from its own territory, under what circumstances does it need to request the consent of the territorial State? Of course, there are no easy answers to these questions, and some of them are currently being discussed, such as in the context of the protocol to the Budapest Cybercrime Convention currently being negotiated to address this very topic.

These questions reflect an inherent tension between States’ legitimate interest and the concept of territorial sovereignty, as we understand it in the physical world. In practice, States occasionally do conduct cyber activities that transit through, and target, networks and computers located in other States, for example for national defense, cybersecurity, or law enforcement purposes. Under existing international law, it is not clear whether these types of actions are violations of the rule of territorial sovereignty, or perhaps that our understanding of territorial sovereignty in cyberspace is substantively different from its meaning in the physical world."[47]

Japan (2021)

"A State must not violate the sovereignty of another State by cyber operations. Moreover, a State must not intervene in matters within domestic jurisdiction of another State by cyber operations."[48]

"On the other hand, regarding a violation of sovereignty that does not necessarily constitute an intervention, in the Lotus case, the Permanent Court of International Justice held that a State may not exercise its power in the territory of another State, while, in the Island of Palmas case, the Arbitral Tribunal stated as follows: "Sovereignty in the relations between States signifies independence. Independence in regard to a portion of the globe is the right to exercise therein, to the exclusion of any other State, the functions of a State." Taking these and other judgments into account, the Government of Japan considers that there exist certain forms of violation of sovereignty which may not necessarily constitute unlawful intervention prohibited under the principle of non-intervention.

With respect to violation of sovereignty, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in the Nicaragua case (1986), held that the United States had acted in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State, and, in addition, that the United States, by directing or authorizing overflights of Nicaraguan territory, had acted in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to violate the sovereignty of another State. In addition, in the Costa Rica v. Nicaragua case (2015), the ICJ cited the absence of evidence that Costa Rica exercised authority on Nicaragua ’s territory as the reason for dismissing Nicaragua's claim concerning the violation of its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Considering these cases, it can be presumed that, in some cases, a violation of sovereignty constitutes a violation of international law even when it does not fall within the scope of unlawful intervention."[49]

"An act of causing physical damage or loss of functionality by means of cyber operations against critical infrastructure, including medical institutions, may constitute an unlawful intervention, depending on the circumstances, and at any rate, it may constitute a violation of sovereignty. As various opinions were expressed on the relationship between violation of sovereignty and unlawful intervention at the sixth GGE and the OEWG, it is desirable that a common understanding be forged through State practices and future discussions."[50]

Kenya (2021)

"The UN Charter forms a strong foundation for the interpretation of existing international laws underlined by inter alia the principles of State sovereignty, sovereign equality, and settlement of international disputes by peaceful means. It is the Charter’s emphasis on these principles that is fully aligned with Kenya’s peaceful stance in international affairs."[51]

Netherlands (2019)

"The principle of sovereignty, i.e. that states are equal and independent and hold the highest authority within their own borders, is one of the fundamental principles of international law. More specific rules of international law, such as the prohibition of the use of force, the principle of non-intervention and the right of self-defence stem from this principle. These rules will be discussed in more detail below.

According to some countries and legal scholars, the sovereignty principle does not constitute an independently binding rule of international law that is separate from the other rules derived from it. The Netherlands does not share this view. It believes that respect for the sovereignty of other countries is an obligation in its own right, the violation of which may in turn constitute an internationally wrongful act. This view is supported, for example, by the case law of the International Court of Justice, which ruled in Nicaragua v. United States of America that the United States had acted in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to violate the sovereignty of another state. Below the government will discuss the significance of this obligation in more detail.

Firstly, sovereignty implies that states have exclusive jurisdiction over all persons, property and events within their territory, within the limits of their obligations under international law, such as those relating to diplomatic privileges and immunity, and those arising from human rights conventions. This is the internal aspect of sovereignty. Secondly, sovereignty implies that states may freely and independently determine their own foreign policy, enter into international obligations and relations, and carry out activities beyond their own borders, provided they respect the rules of international law. This is the external aspect of sovereignty.

Both aspects apply equally in cyberspace. States have exclusive authority over the physical, human and immaterial (logical or software-related) aspects of cyberspace within their territory. Within their territory they may, for example, set rules concerning the technical specifications of mobile networks, cybersecurity and resilience against cyberattacks, take measures to combat cybercrime, and enforce the law with a view to protecting the confidentiality of personal data. In addition, they may independently pursue foreign ‘cyber’ policy and enter into treaty obligations in the area of cybersecurity. The Netherlands’ decision to accede to the Convention on Cybercrime of the Council of Europe is an example of the exercise of Dutch sovereignty.

States have an obligation to respect the sovereignty of other states and to refrain from activities that constitute a violation of other countries’ sovereignty. Equally, countries may not conduct cyber operations that violate the sovereignty of another country. It should be noted in this regard that the precise boundaries of what is and is not permissible have yet to fully crystallise. This is due to the firmly territorial and physical connotations of the traditional concept of sovereignty. The principle has traditionally been aimed at protecting a state's authority over property and persons within its own national borders. In cyberspace, the concepts of territoriality and physical tangibility are often less clear. It is possible, for example, for a single cyber operation to be made up of numerous components or activities initiated from or deployed via different countries in a way that cannot always be traced. In addition, there are various ways of masking the geographic origin of activities performed in cyberspace. What is more, data stored using a cloud-based system is often moved from one location to another, and those locations are not always traceable. So it is by no means always possible to establish whether a cyber operation involves a cross-border component and thus violates a country's sovereignty. Even if the origin or route of a cyber operation can be established, these kinds of operations do not always have a direct physical or tangible impact.

From the perspective of law enforcement (which is part of a state’s internal sovereignty), the manner in which the principle of sovereignty should be applied has not fully crystallised at international level either. Shared investigative practices do seem to be developing in Europe and around the world, however. Data relevant to criminal investigations is increasingly stored beyond national borders, for example in the cloud, in mainly private data centres. And when it comes to criminal offences committed on, or by means of, the internet, the location of data – including malicious software or code – and physical infrastructure is often largely irrelevant. It is easy to hide one’s identity and location on the internet, moreover, and more and more communications are now encrypted. Even in purely domestic criminal cases – including cybercrime – where the suspect and victim are both in the Netherlands, cyber investigations often encounter data stored beyond our borders, particularly when investigators require access to data held by online service providers or hosting services, or need to search networks or (covertly) gain remote entry to an automated system. The act of exercising investigative powers in a cross-border context is traditionally deemed a violation of a country’s sovereignty unless the country in question has explicitly granted permission (by means of a treaty or other instrument). Opinion is divided as to what qualifies as exercising investigative powers in a cross-border context and when it is permissible without a legal basis founded in a treaty. In cyberspace too, countries’ practices differ in their practical approaches to the principle of sovereignty in relation to criminal investigations. The Netherlands actively participates in international consultations on the scope for making investigations more effective, paying specific attention to ensuring the right safeguards are in place.

In general the government endorses Rule 4, proposed by the drafters of the Tallinn Manual 2.0, on establishing the boundaries of sovereignty in cyberspace.5 Under this rule, a violation of sovereignty is deemed to occur if there is 1) infringement upon the target State’s territorial integrity; and 2) there has been an interference with or usurpation of inherently governmental functions of another state. The precise interpretation of these factors is a matter of debate."[52]

New Zealand (2020)

"The principle of sovereignty prohibits the interference by one state in the inherently governmental functions of another and prohibits the exercise of state power or authority on the territory of another state. In the physical realm, the principle has legal effect through the prohibition on the use of force, through the rule of non-intervention and also through a standalone rule of territorial sovereignty. Subject to limited exceptions (e.g. authorisation by the United Nations Security Council, self-defence, consent), that standalone rule prohibits a state from sending its troops or police forces into or through, or its aircraft over, foreign territory, and prohibits a state from carrying out official investigations or otherwise exercising jurisdiction on foreign territory.

In the cyber realm, the principle of sovereignty is given effect through the prohibition on the use of force and the rule of non-intervention. New Zealand considers that the standalone rule of territorial sovereignty also applies in the cyber context but acknowledges that further state practice is required for the precise boundaries of its application to crystallise.

In New Zealand’s view, the application of the rule of territorial sovereignty in cyberspace must take into account some critical features that distinguish cyberspace from the physical realm. In particular: i) cyberspace contains a virtual element which has no clear territorial link; ii) cyber activity may involve cyber infrastructure operating simultaneously in multiple territories and diffuse jurisdictions; and iii) the lack of physical distance in cyberspace means malicious actors can apply instantaneous effects on targets without warning. These features present unique opportunities for malicious actors and significant defensive challenges for states. They also make it difficult for states to prevent malicious cyber activity being conducted from or routed through their territory.

Bearing those factors in mind, and having regard to developing state practice, New Zealand considers that territorial sovereignty prohibits states from using cyber means to cause significant harmful effects manifesting on the territory of another state. However, New Zealand does not consider that territorial sovereignty prohibits every unauthorised intrusion into a foreign ICT system or prohibits all cyber activity which has effects on the territory of another state. There is a range of circumstances – in addition to pure espionage activity – in which an unauthorised cyber intrusion, including one causing effects on the territory of another state, would not be internationally wrongful. For example, New Zealand considers that the rule of territorial sovereignty as applied in the cyber context does not prohibit states from taking necessary measures, with minimally destructive effects, to defend against the harmful activity of malicious cyber actors.

A detailed factual enquiry is required in each case to determine whether state cyber activity that has effects manifesting on the territory of another state, but which does not amount to a use of force or a prohibited intervention, nonetheless involves a violation of the standalone rule of territorial sovereignty. That factual enquiry should take into account the scale and significance of the effects, the objective of the activity, and the nature of the target."[53]

Norway (2021)

Key message
Sovereignty is not just a principle, but also a primary rule of international law.

A State must not conduct cyber operations that violate another State’s sovereignty.

Whether a cyber operation violates the target State’s sovereignty depends on the nature of the operation, the scale of the intrusion and its consequences, and must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

"The principle of sovereignty is one of the fundamental principles of international law and applies in cyberspace. It refers to the supreme authority of every State within its territory to the exclusion of other States, and also in its relations with other States.

The internal dimension of a State’s sovereignty includes the exclusive right to exercise jurisdiction within its territory, including over the information systems located on its territory, and to exercise independent State powers. The external dimension includes the right of the State to decide its foreign policy and to enter into international agreements. Both dimensions of sovereignty apply in cyberspace, subject only to obligations under international law.

Norway is of the view that sovereignty constitutes both an international law principle from which various rules derive, such as the prohibition of intervention and the prohibition of the use of force, and a primary rule in its own right capable of being violated. Thus, cyber operations that do not amount to a prohibited intervention or a prohibited use of force may nevertheless amount to a violation of a State’s sovereignty under international law.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has consistently held that States have an obligation to respect the territorial integrity and political independence of other States as a matter of international law. In a cyber context this means that a State must not conduct cyber operations that violate another State’s sovereignty.

A cyber operation that manifests itself on another State’s territory may, depending on its nature, the scale of the intrusion and its consequences, constitute a violation of sovereignty.

Causing physical damage by cyber means on another State’s territory may easily qualify as a violation of territorial sovereignty. For example, a cyber operation against an industrial control system at a petrochemical plant that led to a malfunction and a subsequent fire would constitute a violation of the State’s territorial sovereignty. In addition to physical damage, causing cyber infrastructure to lose functionality may also be taken into consideration and may amount to a violation. This includes the use of crypto viruses to encrypt data and thus render them unusable for a substantial period of time.

The principle of sovereignty encompasses cyber infrastructure located in a State’s territory irrespective of whether it is governmental or private.

Similarly, a cyber operation that interferes with or usurps the inherently governmental functions of another State may constitute a violation of sovereignty.

This is based on the premise that a State enjoys the exclusive right to exercise within its territory, ‘to the exclusion of any other State, the functions of a State’. Accordingly, what matters is not whether physical damage, injury, or loss of functionality has resulted, but whether the cyber operation has interfered with data or services that are necessary for the exercise of inherently governmental functions. Cases in point would include altering or deleting data or blocking digital communication between public bodies and citizens so as to interfere with the delivery of social services, the conduct of elections, the collection of taxes, or the performance of key national defence activities. Another example could be the manipulation of police communications so that patrol cars are unable to communicate with police dispatch/operation centres. In this context it is irrelevant whether the inherently governmental function is performed by central, regional or local governments and authorities, or by non-governmental bodies in the exercise of powers delegated by such governments or authorities. Conducting elections is a clear example of an inherently governmental function. In contrast to the case of a cyber operation in breach of the prohibition of intervention, there is no requirement for the interference to reach to the level of coercion.

The precise threshold of what constitute a cyber operation in violation of sovereignty is not settled in international law, and will depend on a case-by-case assessment."[54]

Romania (2021)

"Romania considers that respect for the state sovereignty is an international obligation per se, the breach of which constitutes an internationally wrongful act; States have an obligation to respect the sovereignty of other States and refrain from activities that constitute a violation of their sovereignty; this holds true both in what concerns the internal as well as the external facet of the principle of sovereignty.

At the same time, we acknowledge that the difficulty in relation to this principle lies in the absence in cyberspace context of the territoriality and physical dimensions, which are the specific elements of the analysis when dealing with the sovereignty in the traditional sense.

In relation to these aspects, RO is of the view that cyber operations (conducted by a State organ or by a person or entity exercising elements of governmental authority or by a person acting under the instructions of or under the direction or control of a State) that interferes with or prevents in any way a State from exercising its (internal and/ or external) sovereign prerogatives (i.e. authority over its territory, over the property and persons situated therein) constitute a violation of the principle of State sovereignty and, thus, a breach of international law.

If there is not a State or State endorsed operation one can speak of a criminal act, which should be investigated and punished in accordance with the criminal law of the State concerned."[55]

Singapore (2021)

"Singapore affirms that the following key principles enshrined in the UN Charter apply in cyberspace as they do in the physical world, and are of fundamental importance to small States, such as Singapore:

  • First, the principles of State sovereignty and sovereign equality of all States. Singapore’s position is that a cyber operation could, in certain circumstances, amount to a violation of sovereignty.[56]

Switzerland (2021)

"State sovereignty is also applicable to cyberspace. Owing to the special characteristics of cyberspace, which has no clear territorial boundaries, putting the principle of sovereignty into practice is a particular challenge. One major issue is who has jurisdiction over or access to digital data. In the cyber context, the key question is which states have legitimate control over digital data and are authorised to access that data – which may, depending on the circumstances, be stored on a different territory or may not be localised geographically. Conversely, in terms of interstate relations at cybersecurity level, the principle of sovereignty provides wide scope for protection against cyber operations.For example, state sovereignty protects information and communication technologies (ICT) infrastructure on a state's territory against unauthorised intrusion or material damage. This includes the computer networks, systems and software supported by the ICT infrastructure, regardless of whether the infrastructure is private or public.

Switzerland recognises that defining what constitutes a violation of the principle of sovereignty in cyberspace is particularly challenging and has yet to be clarified conclusively. It supports considering the following two criteria in such assessments: first, does the incident violate the state's territorial integrity and second, does it constitute interference with or usurpation of an inherently governmental function. A precise definition of these criteria is a question of interpretation and subject to debate. The current debate includes among other aspects i) incidents whereby the functionality of infrastructure or related equipment has been damaged or limited, ii) cases where data has been altered or deleted, interfering with the fulfilment of inherently governmental functions such as providing social services, conducting elections and referendums, or collecting taxes, and iii) situations in which a state has sought to influence, disrupt or delay democratic decision-making processes in another state through the coordinated use of legal and illegal methods in cyberspace e.g. propaganda, disinformation and covert actions by intelligence services. The assessment of an individual case depends on the nature of the cyber incident and its repercussions."[57]

United Kingdom (2018)

"[..]a further contested area amongst those engaged in the application of international law to cyber space is the regulation of activities that fall below the threshold of a prohibited intervention, but nonetheless may be perceived as affecting the territorial sovereignty of another state without that state’s prior consent. Some have sought to argue for the existence of a cyber specific rule of a “violation of territorial sovereignty” in relation to interference in the computer networks of another state without its consent. Sovereignty is of course fundamental to the international rules-based system. But I am not persuaded that we can currently extrapolate from that general principle a specific rule or additional prohibition for cyber activity beyond that of a prohibited intervention. The UK Government’s position is therefore that there is no such rule as a matter of current international law.[58]

United Kingdom (2021)

"Sovereignty, as a general principle, is a fundamental concept in international law. The United Kingdom recalls that any prohibition on the activities of States whether in relation to cyberspace or other matters, must be clearly established either in customary international law or in a treaty binding upon the States concerned. The United Kingdom does not consider that the general concept of sovereignty by itself provides a sufficient or clear basis for extrapolating a specific rule or additional prohibition for cyber conduct going beyond that of non-intervention referred to above. At the same time, the United Kingdom notes that differing viewpoints on such issues should not prevent States from assessing whether particular situations amount to internationally wrongful acts and arriving at common conclusions on such matters."[59]

United States (2012)

"States conducting activities in cyberspace must take into account the sovereignty of other states, including outside the context of armed conflict. The physical infrastructure that supports the Internet and cyber activities is generally located in sovereign territory and subject to the jurisdiction of the territorial state. Because of the interconnected, interoperable nature of cyberspace, operations targeting networked information infrastructures in one country may create effects in another country. Whenever a state contemplates conducting activities in cyberspace, the sovereignty of other states needs to be considered."[60]

United States (2016)

"[..] remote cyber operations involving computers or other networked devices located on another State’s territory do not constitute a per se violation of international law. In other words, there is no absolute prohibition on such operations as a matter of international law. This is perhaps most clear where such activities in another State’s territory have no effects or de minimis effects.

Most States, including the United States, engage in intelligence collection abroad. As President Obama said, the collection of intelligence overseas is “not unique to America.” As the President has also affirmed, the United States, like other nations, has gathered intelligence throughout its history to ensure that national security and foreign policy decisionmakers have access to timely, accurate, and insightful information. Indeed, the President issued a directive in 2014 to clarify the principles that would be followed by the United States in undertaking the collection of signals intelligence abroad.

Such widespread and perhaps nearly universal practice by States of intelligence collection abroad indicates that there is no per se prohibition on such activities under customary international law. I would caution, however, that because “intelligence collection” is not a defined term, the absence of a per se prohibition on these activities does not settle the question of whether a specific intelligence collection activity might nonetheless violate a provision of international law.

Although certain activities—including cyber operations — may violate another State’s domestic law, that is a separate question from whether such activities violate international law. The United States is deeply respectful of other States’ sovereign authority to prescribe laws governing activities in their territory. Disrespecting another State’s domestic laws can have serious legal and foreign policy consequences. As a legal matter, such an action could result in the criminal prosecution and punishment of a State’s agents in the United States or abroad, for example, for offenses such as espionage or for violations of foreign analogs to provisions such as the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. From a foreign policy perspective, one can look to the consequences that flow from disclosures related to such programs. But such domestic law and foreign policy issues do not resolve the independent question of whether the activity violates international law."[61]

United States (2020)

"As a threshold matter, in analyzing proposed cyber operations, DoD lawyers take into account the principle of State sovereignty. States have sovereignty over the information and communications technology infrastructure within their territory. The implications of sovereignty for cyberspace are complex, and we continue to study this issue and how State practice evolves in this area, even if it does not appear that there exists a rule that all infringements on sovereignty in cyberspace necessarily involve violations of international law."[62]

Appendices

See also

Notes and references

  1. Island of Palmas (Neth. v. U.S.), 2 RIAA 829, 838 (Perm. Ct. Arb. 1928).
  2. UNGA Res 71/237 (30 December 2015) UN Doc A/RES/20/237.
  3. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 'Wales Summit Declaration' (issued by the Head of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Wales (5 September 2015) para 72.
  4. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Decision No. 1202, OSCE Confidence-Building Measures to Reduce the Risks of Conflict Stemming from the Use of Information and Communication Technologies (Permanent Council, 10 March 2016) PC.DEC/1202.
  5. Council of the European Union,"Council Conclusions on the Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council: Resilience, Deterrence and Defence: Building strong cybersecurity for the EU" (Council conclusions, 20 November 2017).
  6. Michael N Schmitt, 'Virtual Disenfranchisement: Cyber Election Meddling in the Grey Zones of International Law' (2018) 19 ChiJIntlL 30,40; Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 4, para 2 (‘States shoulder an obligation to respect the sovereignty of other States as a matter of international law’).
  7. Austria, Pre-Draft Report of the OEWG - ICT: Comments by Austria (31 March 2020), stating that ‘a violation of the principle of State sovereignty constitutes an internationally wrongful act – if attributable to a State – for which a target State may seek reparation under the law of State responsibility’.
  8. Czech Republic, Statement by Mr. Richard Kadlčák, Special Envoy for Cyberspace, 2nd substantive session of the Open-ended Working Group on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security (11 February 2020), stating that ‘[t]he Czech Republic concurs with those considering the principle of sovereignty as an independent right and the respect to sovereignty as an independent obligation.’
  9. Finland, ‘International law and cyberspace: Finland’s national positions’ (15 October 2020), 3, stating that ‘Finland sees sovereignty as a primary rule of international law, a breach of which amounts to an internationally wrongful act and triggers State responsibility. This rule is fully applicable in cyberspace.’
  10. French Ministry of the Armies, ‘International Law Applied to Operations in Cyberspace’, 9 September 2019, stating that ‘Any unauthorised penetration by a State of French systems or any production of effects on French territory via a digital vector may constitute, at the least, a breach of sovereignty’.
  11. Germany, ‘On the Application of International Law in Cyberspace: Position Paper’ (March 2021), p. 3, noting that ‘Germany agrees with the view that cyber operations attributable to States which violate the sovereignty of another State are contrary to international law’.
  12. Iran, ‘Declaration of General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran Regarding International Law Applicable to the Cyberspace’ (July 2020), para 4 (‘Any utilization of cyberspace if and when involves unlawful intrusion to the (public or private) cyber structures which is under the control of another state, maybe constituted as the violation of the sovereignty of the targeted state.’).
  13. Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Letter to the parliament on the international legal order in cyberspace’ (5 July 2019), stating that ‘countries may not conduct cyber operations that violate the sovereignty of another country’.
  14. Gary P. Corn and Robert Taylor, ‘Sovereignty in the Age of Cyber’ (2017) 111 AJIL Unbound 207, 208 (arguing that sovereignty is ‘a principle of international law that guides state interactions’).
  15. Jeremy Wright, ‘Cyber and International Law in the 21st Century’ (23 May 2018) (stating that he was ‘not persuaded that we can currently extrapolate from that general principle a specific rule or additional prohibition for cyber activity beyond that of a prohibited intervention. The UK Government’s position is therefore that there is no such rule as a matter of current international law’); see also Memorandum from JM O’Connor, General Counsel of the Department of Defense, ‘International Law Framework for Employing Cyber Capabilities in Military Operations’ (19 January 2017) (considering that sovereignty is not ‘a binding legal norm, proscribing cyber actions by one State that result in effects occurring on the infrastructure located in another State, or that are manifest in another State’), as cited by Sean Watts & Theodore Richard, 'Baseline Territorial Sovereignty and Cyberspace' (2018) 22 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 771, 829.
  16. Paul C. Ney, DOD General Counsel Remarks at U.S. Cyber Command Legal Conference, 2 March 2020, arguing that ‘the Department believes there is not sufficiently widespread and consistent State practice resulting from a sense of legal obligation to conclude that customary international law generally prohibits such non-consensual cyber operations in another State’s territory’.
  17. Cf. James Crawford, Brownlie's Principles of Public International Law (OUP 2012) 448.
  18. Tallinn Manual 2.0, rule 2.
  19. Sovereignty over cyber infrastructure derives from the traditional concept of sovereignty, independent of the use of cyberspace. See Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg, 'Territorial Sovereignty and Neutrality in Cyberspace' (2013) 89 Int’l L. Stud. 123 (noting that '[t]erritorial sovereignty [..] implies that, subject to applicable customary or conventional rules of international law, the State alone is entitled to exercise jurisdiction, especially by subjecting objects and persons within its territory to domestic legislation and to enforce these rules.')
  20. UN GA Res 2625 (XXV) (24 October 1970) (Friendly Relations Declaration), preamble (emphasizing “that the purposes of the United Nations can be implemented only if States enjoy sovereign equality and comply fully with the requirements of this principle in their international relations”); Tallinn Manual 2.0, rule 4.
  21. Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 4, para 5 and 12.
  22. See, eg, Certain Activities Carried Out by Nicaragua in the Border Area (Costa Rica v Nicaragua) and Construction of a Road in Costa Rica along the San Juan River (Nicaragua v Costa Rica) (Judgment) [2015] ICJ Rep 665, 704–05, paras 97–99 (holding that the presence of Nicaragua’s military personnel in the territory under Costa Rica’s sovereignty amounted to a violation of Costa Rica’s territorial sovereignty); see also Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 4, para 6.
  23. Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 4, para 7; commentary to rule 32, para 9.
  24. Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 4, para 11.
  25. Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 4, para 12.
  26. Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 4, para 13.
  27. Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 4, para 14.
  28. Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 4, para 15.
  29. Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 4, para 16.
  30. Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 4, para 18.
  31. Germany, ‘On the Application of International Law in Cyberspace: Position Paper’ (March 2021), p. 4.
  32. Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Letter to the parliament on the international legal order in cyberspace’ (5 July 2019), p. 3.
  33. French Ministry of the Armies, International Law Applied to Operations in Cyberspace, p. 6.
  34. In favour: see, eg, Theodore Christakis, ‘The ICJ Advisory Opinion on Kosovo: Has International Law Something to Say about Secession?’ (2011) 24 LJIL 73, 84; Marcelo Kohen, ‘The Court’s Contribution to Determining the Content of Fundamental Principles of International Law’ in Giorgio Gaja and Jenny Grote Stoutenburg (eds), Enhancing the Rule of Law through the International Court of Justice (Brill 2012) 145. Against: see, eg, Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 4, para 3.
  35. Australian Government, Australia's position on how international law applies to State conduct in cyberspace
  36. Official compendium of voluntary national contributions on the subject of how international law applies to the use of information and communications technologies by States, UNODA, A/76/136, August 2021, 18.
  37. Richard Kadlčák, Statement of the Special Envoy for Cyberspace and Director of Cybersecurity Department of the Czech Republic, 11 February 2020, 3
  38. President of Estonia: international law applies also in cyber space, 29 May 2019
  39. Official compendium of voluntary national contributions on the subject of how international law applies to the use of information and communications technologies by States, UNODA, A/76/136, August 2021, 24-25.
  40. International law and cyberspace - Finland's national position
  41. Ministry of Defense of France, International Law Applied to Operations in Cyberspace, 9 September 2019, 6.
  42. Ministry of Defense of France, International Law Applied to Operations in Cyberspace, 9 September 2019, 7.
  43. Ministry of Defense of France, International Law Applied to Operations in Cyberspace, 9 September 2019, 7.
  44. Federal Government of Germany, On the Application of International Law in Cyberspace, March 2021, 2-3.
  45. Federal Government of Germany, On the Application of International Law in Cyberspace, March 2021, 3-4.
  46. Declaration of General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran Regarding International Law Applicable to the Cyberspace, August 2020
  47. Roy Schöndorf, Israel’s Perspective on Key Legal and Practical Issues Concerning the Application of International Law to Cyber Operations, 8 December 2020.
  48. "Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Basic Position of the Government of Japan on International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations, 16 June 2021, 2
  49. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Basic Position of the Government of Japan on International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations, 16 June 2021, 2-3
  50. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Basic Position of the Government of Japan on International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations, 16 June 2021, 3
  51. Official compendium of voluntary national contributions on the subject of how international law applies to the use of information and communications technologies by States, UNODA, A/76/136, August 2021, 54.
  52. Government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Appendix: International law in cyberspace, 26 September 2019 , 1-3.
  53. The Application of International Law to State Activity in Cyberspace, 1 December 2020, 2-3.
  54. Official compendium of voluntary national contributions on the subject of how international law applies to the use of information and communications technologies by States, UNODA, A/76/136, August 2021, 67-68.
  55. Official compendium of voluntary national contributions on the subject of how international law applies to the use of information and communications technologies by States, UNODA, A/76/136, August 2021, 76.
  56. Official compendium of voluntary national contributions on the subject of how international law applies to the use of information and communications technologies by States, UNODA, A/76/136, August 2021, 83.
  57. Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Switzerland's position paper on the application of international law in cyberspace, May 2021, 2-3
  58. Attorney General Jeremy Wright:Cyber and International Law in the 21st Century, 23 May 2018
  59. United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, Application of international law to states’ conduct in cyberspace: UK statement, 3 June 2021
  60. Harold Hongju Koh, International Law in Cyberspace, 18 September 2012, 6
  61. Brian J. Egan, International Law and Stability in Cyberspace, 10 November 2016 11-13.
  62. Hon. Paul C. Ney, Jr., DOD General Counsel Remarks at U.S. Cyber Command Legal Conference, 2 March, 2020

Bibliography and further reading

Whether sovereignty has been violated in the present case is controversial. On the one hand, the outcome of the operation was limited to physically non-destructive effects and its impact on the electrical distribution grid was fully reversible. On the other hand, the operation caused significant inconvenience for the population and necessitated a degree of government response in the form of provision of supplies and aid. On balance, the better view is that operations of this kind qualify as infringing on the sovereignty of the affected State given that the need to respond deprives that State of a part of its ability to conduct its affairs freely.

Possible obligation not to conduct cyber operations against other states’ critical infrastructure

In its 2015 report, the UN group of governmental experts agreed on a formulation that “[a] State should not conduct or knowingly support ICT activity contrary to its obligations under international law that intentionally damages critical infrastructure or otherwise impairs the use and operation of critical infrastructure to provide services to the public“.[1] This raises the question whether a cyber operation such as the one described in this scenario infringes an obligation not to attack critical national infrastructure of other States.

However, it is uncertain whether such an obligation can be said to exist in the present state of international law. Three points should be made in this regard. First of all, cyber operations against critical infrastructure have recently become a very frequent occurrence in the international practice.[2] Of course, the frequency of particular type of conduct, even if it “amount[s] to a settled practice”, does not by itself suffice to establish a new permissive rule of customary law.[3] However, the fact that most of these instances have not been accompanied by specific condemnations by those States in a position to react to them, suggests that equally, no corresponding prohibitive rule has emerged thus far.[4]

Secondly, although UN GGE reports are based on the consensus of governmental experts selected on the basis of equitable geographical representation,[5] their views cannot be said to automatically reflect customary international law. The mandate of the UN GGE is decidedly not focussed on the identification of customary legal rules; rather, it includes the proposing and promoting of “[v]oluntary, non-binding norms of responsible State behaviour”.[6] As such, the legal valence of any normative statements found in one of the reports must be understood as minimal to none.

Finally, even if the GGE did have the mandate and ability to identify relevant rules of custom, it most certainly did not do so with regard to operations against critical national infrastructure. It is manifest from the formulation cited above that the governmental experts did not consider any intentional cyber operation against critical national infrastructure to be internationally unlawful. Rather, they included the phrase “contrary to its obligations under international law”, confirming that on their view, such an operation would only violate international law if there is an additional obligation that would be breached by the operation in question.[7]

In sum, the preferred view is that a standalone rule prohibiting cyber operations against critical national infrastructure has not emerged in international law thus far. As such, the incident in the scenario cannot be described as infringing this supposed obligation.

Checklist

Appendixes

See also

Notes and references

  1. UN GGE 2015 report, para. 13(f).
  2. See, eg, US, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community (26 February 2015) (“foreign actors are reconnoitering and developing access to U.S. critical infrastructure systems, which might be quickly exploited for disruption if an adversary’s intent became hostile.”); FO Hampson and M Sulmeyer (eds), Getting Beyond Norms (CIGI 2017) 6 (“Disrupting or damaging critical infrastructures that provide services to the public has become customary practice — the new normal. In the past two years and since the GGE agreement, there have been an alarming number of harmful incidents targeting critical infrastructures around the world, ranging from power systems to telecommunications systems to transportation systems to financial systems.”).
  3. ICJ, Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v US) (Merits) [1986] ICJ Rep 14, para 207, citing ICJ, North Sea Continental Shelf Cases (Federal Republic of Germany/Denmark; Federal Republic of Germany/Netherlands) [1969] ICJ Rep 3, para 77.
  4. Cf. also ECCC, Case No 002/19-09-2007-EEEC/ OICJ (PTC38), Decision on the Appeals Against the Co-Investigative Judges Order on Joint Criminal Enterprise (JCE) (20 May 2010), para 53 (“A wealth of State practice does not usually carry with it a presumption that opinio juris exists”).
  5. UNGA Res 68/243 (27 December 2013), preambular para 16.
  6. UN GGE 2015 report, para 10. On the distinction between cyber rules and cyber norms, see K Mačák, ‘From Cyber Norms to Cyber Rules: Re-engaging States as Law-makers’ (2017) 30 LJIL 877, 877–99.
  7. Cf. UN GGE 2015 report, para. 13(f).

Bibliography and further reading

External links