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. While 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 posed by nuclear strike during the Cold War. But in the last fifty years, the internet has evolved to such an extent that it now permeates and controls much of human life and government action. The internet society has also altered 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 as well as the very nature of weapons of mass destruction that are likely to be deployed in modern warfare. 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 state and private 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. Like all complex technological systems, those designed to govern the use of nukes are inherently flawed. They are designed, built, installed, maintained, and operated by humans. We can never have complete control over the supply chain for critical nuclear components – hardware and software are often off-the-shelf. And today’s systems must contend with all the other modern tools of cyber warfare, including spyware, malware, worms, bugs, viruses, corrupted firmware, logic bombs and Trojan horses. Networking nuclear arsenal introduces new vulnerabilities and dangers, including the risk of remote access through the internet.

The ‘stuxnet’ attack in Iran illustrates that air gapping devices does not necessarily protect them from 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), in order to seek out and compromise the specific model of Siemens computers which 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 ever-increasing availability of information online, demonstrates the increasing 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 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 to develop killer robot technologies.

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. A future involving killer robots has been likened to scenes from the Terminator and Robocop movies. Experts have pointed out that allowing machines to choose to kill humans would be “devastating to our security and freedom” and that artificial intelligence should be proactively regulated because of the “fundamental risk [it poses] to the existence of civilization”.

Killer robots undoubtedly violate the first principle 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 person or nation to account for injury, death or war crimes caused by killer robots. The development of ‘intelligent’ tools with an 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. 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 live, 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 development of the internet was the risk to civilization posed by weapons of mass destruction. Fifty years on, however, we should reconsider whether the internet has in fact decreased the risk to human life posed by these weapons, or has instead compounded it.

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r4 - 11 Jan 2018 - 23:55:39 - CharlotteSkerten
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