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ancient history

Word of Mouse

The story goes that when the Roman horsemen first saw Pyrrhus’ twenty war elephants, at the battle of Heraclea in 280 BCE, they were so terrorised by these strange creatures, which they had never seen before, that they galloped away and the Roman legions lost the battle. Today, the new elephants are electronic.

The phenomenon may have just begun to emerge in the public debate but, in post-informational societies, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are increasingly shaping armed conflicts. In terms of conventional military operations, ICTs have revolutionised communications, making possible complex new modes of field operations. Of course, ICTs have also made possible the swift analysis of vast amounts of data, enabling the military, intelligence and law enforcement communities to take action in ever more timely and targeted ways. But even more significantly, battles are nowadays fought by highly mobile forces, armed with real-time ICT devices, satellites, battlefield sensors and so forth, as well as thousands of robots.

The growing dependence of societies and their militaries on advanced ICTs has led to strategic cyber-attacks, designed to cause costly and crippling disruptions. Armies of human soldiers may not be needed. Cyber-attacks can be undertaken by nations or networks, or even by very small groups or individuals. ICTs have made asymmetric conflicts easier, and shifted the battleground more than an inch into the infosphere.

The scale of such transformations is staggering. For example, at the beginning of the war in Iraq, US forces had no robotic systems on the ground. However, by 2004, they already deployed 150 robots, in 2005 there were 2,400; and by the end of 2008, about 12,000 robots of nearly two dozen varieties were operating on the ground, according to The New Atlantis. And on April 26 2007, Estonia was the location of the first case of denial-of-service attack. This is a systematic attempt to make computer resources unavailable, at least temporarily, by forcing vital sites or services to reset or consume their resources or by disrupting their communications so that they can no longer function properly.

ICT-mediated modes of conflict pose a variety of ethical problems, for war-fighting militaries in the field, for intelligence gathering services, for policy makers and for ethicists. They tend to erase the threshold between reality and simulation, between life and play, and between conventional conflicts, insurgencies or terrorist actions. A troubling perspective is that ICTs might make unconventional conflicts more acceptable ethically, by stressing the less deadly outcome of military operations in cyberspace. This might of course be utterly illusory: messing with ICT-infrastructures of hospitals and airports may easily cause the loss of human lives, even if in a less visible and obvious way than bombs do. Yet the impression remains that we could be moving towards a more precise, surgical, bloodless way of handling our disagreements.

Clearly, ICTs have caused radical changes both in how societies may come into conflict and how they may manage it. At the same time, there is a policy and a conceptual vacuum. For example, in June 2007 The Economist reported that “America’s Department of Defence wants to replace a third of its armed vehicles and weaponry with robots by 2015,” but it still lacks an ethical code for the deployment of these new, semi-autonomous weapons. This is a global issue. The 2002 Prague Summit marked NATO’s first attempt to address cyber-defence activities. Five years later, according to The Wilson Quarterly, there were already “42 countries working on military robotics, from Iran and China to Belarus and Pakistan,” but not even a draft of an international agreement regarding their ethical deployment. There has been very little descriptive and conceptual analysis of such a crucial area in applied ethics, and no attempt to assess the effectiveness of the initial measures that have been taken to deal with the increasing application of ICTs in armed conflicts.

The issue could not be more pressing and there is a much-felt and quickly escalating need to share information and coordinate ethical theorising. The goals should be sharing information and views about the current state of the ethics of e-warfare, developing a comprehensive framework for a clear interpretation of the new aspects of e-war, building a critical consensus about the ethical deployment of e-weapons, and laying down the foundation for an ethical approach to e-warfare.

At a time when there is an exponential growth in R&D concerning ICT-based weapons and strategies, philosophers and ethicists could provide timely advice, by collaborating on the identification, discussion and resolution of the unprecedented ethical difficulties characterising cyberwar. This is far from being premature. During the civil war, in the battle of Thapsus in 46 BCE, Julius Caesar’s fifth legion was armed with axes and was ordered to strike at the elephant’s legs of the enemy. The legion withstood the charge, and the elephant became its symbol. Interestingly, nobody at the time could even imagine that there might be an ethical problem in treating animals so cruelly. We should think ahead, because history likes to repeat itself.

Luciano Floridi holds the Research Chair in Philosophy of Information at the University of Hertfordshire and is president of the International Association for Computing and Philosophy.