Security, civil rights and the ethics of cyberwar

Just a few months following his inauguration as president of the world’s most powerful military, political and economic entity, Barack Obama spoke of the need to deal with the threat of attacks from hostile states and terrorists on the electronic information infrastructure of the US. Obama was following a number of expert commentators on the subject of cyber warfare. His speech was at the time widely reported, but it appears relatively little discussed.

I’m reminded now of Obama’s cyber warfare speech by an announcement from the University of Hertfordshire that Luciano Floridi, a UNESCO-funded philosopher specialising in information and computer ethics, has been awarded a grant of €170k from the European Union’s Marie Curie programme to embark on a two-year research project titled “The Ethics of Information Warfare: Risks, Rights and Responsibilities”.

Working with University of Padua philosopher Mariarosaria Taddeo, an expert on trust in electronic information systems, Floridi plans to address the following three questions:

  1. How can the risks of increasing the number of ICT-based conflicts in the world and hence of civilian casualties be avoided?
  2. How can the erosion of individual rights of privacy, anonymity and personal liberty be balanced against the right of a community to be safe from cyber-attacks?
  3. How can the levels of responsibilities for the actions performed by robotic weapons be fairly evaluated?

“The nature of conflict is changing and we now witness scenarios where countries may have wars online and use IT to disrupt the proper functioning of whole social sectors, such as energy, transport or health services, and hence put human lives at risk,” says Floridi. “The need for a new ethics of information warfare has arisen due to the demands of cyberwar.”

It may not be as headline grabbing as Obama’s lofty rhetoric, but ethics research is needed to resolve the kind of problems outlined by politicians, public and academics alike. Surely it’s time to move beyond the simplistic security vs civil rights debate that fills the comment pages of our supposedly serious newspapers and popular journals.