Today’s wars are not just about kinetic operations on the battlefield. They are fighting in many areas that see advanced new technologies used in conjunction with more traditional munitions. The conflict in Ukraine is just the latest example.
The impact of new technologies on conflict, humanitarian action and international humanitarian law (IHL) is of growing importance to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). New technologies are changing not only the means and methods of warfare, but also the ways in which humanitarian actors respond.
Of the many issues and concerns that new technologies raise for civilians in conflict, four areas deserve special attention: data protection; misinformation, misinformation and hate speech; cyber warfare; and autonomous weapon systems.
Cybersecurity for civilians as new technologies make war more deadly
The data is often called new oil, but can just as easily be compared to asbestos. As humanitarians, we collect data from extremely vulnerable people – refugees, prisoners of war, detainees, people at risk of persecution, to name a few. While collecting and managing this personal data can make us more effective in getting help from those affected, it can be a matter of life and death if it falls into the wrong hands. Therefore, we must be extremely careful about minimizing the data we collect and protecting the information we store.
The ICRC works in some of the most dangerous contexts in the world; therefore, we always strive to build trust and respect with the fighters so that they do not attack us. However, we know very well that there is no guarantee against an attack. Unfortunately, the same situation applies online. Earlier this year we discovered a complex cyber attack on ICRC servers that host data belonging to more than 515,000 people worldwide. Of course, there are lessons to be learned in terms of improving our cyber defense, and we recognize that military-grade cybersecurity cannot be a realistic ambition for humanitarian organizations. Perhaps it is also time for the ICRC to begin engaging with relevant cyber-attack groups to build the same trust and respect for our purely humanitarian mission as we would with armed fighters.
In recent years, numerous cyber incidents have affected civilian infrastructure. Often these incidents occur in the context of political tensions or armed conflict. Cyber operations that disrupt medical facilities or disrupt energy and water supplies pose a significant risk to the civilian population. Our view is clear: cyber tools must be designed and implemented in accordance with IHL. In other words, cyberattacks should not be directed against civilian infrastructure in the same way that hospitals or power plants should not be bombed.
Data and software, including artificial intelligence and machine learning tools, offer potential benefits to the humanities. They could, for example, be used to support family reunification by analyzing large amounts of data or to inform information in the design and implementation of humanitarian interventions. At the same time, AI and machine learning can also be used to automate decisions about who or what will be attacked and when.
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Let’s be clear. Autonomous weapon systems they are not a work of science fiction from a distant dystopian future. They are an immediate cause for humanitarian, legal and ethical concern and need to be addressed now.
For the ICRC, autonomous weapons select and apply force to targets without human intervention. After initial human activation, an autonomous weapon fires a response in response to environmental information – obtained through sensors and software – and based on a generalized “target profile”. The user does not choose or even know the specific target or the exact time or location of the impact. Lack of human control and judgment – and the difficulty of anticipating and controlling the consequences that result – are at the root of our concerns. The ICRC is recommendation that states adopt new legally binding rules banning unpredictable autonomous weapons and those that use force directly on people, and impose strict restrictions on everyone else.
The last major digital risk facing civilians in conflict zones is misinformation, misinformation and hate speech (MDH). With the proliferation of digital technologies and communication systems in the humanitarian context, the “fog of information” is accelerating and exacerbating the “fog of war”. This brings with it new layers of complexity, insecurity and risks for populations and communities affected by conflict and violence.
MDH has always emerged in conflict zones, but the digitalisation of societies and information ecosystems has introduced new paradigms for scale, speed and scope. Although much attention is paid to how MDH affects democracy and public health, there is an urgent need to focus on conflict areas where risks are high and protection and resilience mechanisms are low.
In war zones, what is said online can have devastating consequences in the real world, not only for civilians but also for those who try to protect them. In fact, the ICRC has been the subject of misinformation and misinformation in the conflict in Ukraine. This is not the first time we have been attacked and I am sure it will not be the last. But every time it happens, it puts Red Cross employees, volunteers and the people we are trying to help at risk.
We need to learn to better manage how MDH affects our operations, as well as those citizens who are at the epicenter of conflict zones. In fact, all humanitarians and armed actors need to think carefully about the real impact of new technologies in conflict zones. We all have responsibilities. For those who are at war, they must assess the risks to civilians and ensure full compliance with international law. In the meantime, humanitarian organizations must use technology responsibly and make sure we do no harm. If the ICRC wants to continue to be useful on the battlefield, then we will have to continue to adapt and evolve as technology advances. Life depends on it.
- Balthazar Stechelin is Director of Digital Transformation and Data for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)