On 1 November 2023, the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) of the UN General Assembly approved a draft resolution on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), expressing concern about the possible negative consequences and impact of autonomous weapons systems on global security and regional and international stability and stressing the urgent need for the international community to address the challenges and concerns raised by such systems.
The resolution, once endorsed by the General Assembly, would require the UN Secretary-General to seek the views of Member States and observer States on LAWS and on ways to address the challenges and concerns they raise from humanitarian, legal, security, technological, and ethical perspectives, and to submit a report to the General Assembly at its seventy-ninth session. The Assembly would also request the Secretary-General to invite the views of international and regional organizations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, civil society, the scientific community and industry and to include those in the annex to the report.
The ongoing work of the Group of Governmental Experts on Emerging Technologies in the Areaof Lethal Autonomous Weapons System (GGE on LAWS) – created under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons – is acknowledged in the resolution.
Within the First Committee, the draft resolution was adopted by a vote of 164 in favour to 5 against (Belarus, India, Mali, Niger, Russian Federation), with 8 abstentions (China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Türkiye, United Arab Emirates). In addition, 11 votes were recorded on the resolution’s provisions.
Some of the points raised by member states during the debates include:
- Egypt noted that algorithms must not be in full control of decisions that involve harming or killing humans. Human responsibility and accountability for the use of lethal force must be preserved.
- The Russian Federation expressed concern that the resolution seeks to undermine the work of the GGE on LAWS, which is the sole ideal forum to discuss LAWS. The country also argued that the resolution does not acknowledge that autonomous weapons systems can play an important role in defence and in fighting terrorism, and that international law fully applies to these systems.
- Iran noted that the definition and scope of the term ‘lethal autonomous weapons’ are not clearly defined, and that GGE on LAWS should focus on states parties.
- Türkiye also raised the issue of a lack of agreement on the definition of autonomous weapons systems and noted that the absence of shared terminology increases ‘question marks’ on the way forward. The country also added that international law and international humanitarian law should be sufficient to alleviate concerns regarding the use of such weapons systems.
- The USA stated that it does not support the creation of a parallel process on LAWS or any other efforts that will seek to undermine the centrality of the GGE on LAWS on making progress on this issue. Poland also noted that the GGE is the forum to make progress on identifying challenges and opportunities related to LAWS, and that other international forums are not equally fit, as they often lack technical and diplomatic capacity and do not address the significant balance between humanitarian aspects and military necessity.
- Israel called on member states not to undermine the work done in the Convention through the creation of a parallel forum. It also outlined the importance of the full application of international humanitarian law to LAWS.
- Australia called for the report to be prepared by the UN Secretary-General to be balanced and inclusive of the views of all UN member states. South Africa expressed concern about the provision of the resolution, noting that the integrity of the process under way in the GGE on LAWS should be respected, and states parties have already made their views known on the issue. Brazil argued that the GGE might benefit from the fresher views of a wider audience.
Russian hackers are reportedly intensifying their cyberattacks on Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies, focusing on uncovering information related to investigations of war crimes allegedly committed by Russian soldiers.
According to an SSSCIP report, the Russian objective appears to be to identify war crime suspects, potentially aiding them in evading prosecution and facilitating their return to Russia. Additionally, the hackers are likely keen to ascertain the identities of elite soldiers and officers captured in Ukraine for possible exchange.
Ukrainian cybersecurity officials have voiced concerns over these espionage campaigns, which have targeted entities such as the prosecutor general’s office, courts, and other bodies investigating war crimes.
In a development that may be related, Karim Khan, the lead prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), announced that the court intends to investigate cyberattacks as possible acts of war crimes. Russia’s cyber assaults on Ukraine’s essential civilian infrastructure could be some of the initial instances under this new interpretation.
Not long after this announcement, the ICC decided to establish a field office in Kyiv in charge of investigating Russian war crimes. The ICC then reported a breach of its computer systems without divulging further details regarding the severity or attribution of the attack.
Japan is developing a counter-cyber attack grid for the Indo-Pacific region to protect its interests and allies from cyber threats. The grid will consist of a cyber defence network that covers Pacific islands and enhances cybersecurity cooperation with regional countries.
This project is aligned with Japan’s goal of creating a free and open Indo-Pacific region, where it can balance the rising power of Russia, North Korea, and especially China. Japan wants to build this grid to prevent future cyberattacks and protect its national security and stability.
To strengthen cyber capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, the Japanese Foreign Ministry has allocated around a $75 billion investment plan to strengthen its ties with South and Southeast Asian nations and promote peace, connectivity, and security in the Indo-Pacific. The allocated funds will be utilized for various initiatives, including installing necessary cybersecurity equipment. Additionally, capacity building efforts will be undertaken through joint training sessions. The World Bank will also offer a dedicated fund to support the development of cybersecurity human resources in these nations.
Why does it matter?
The move comes amid growing concerns over China’s alleged involvement in cyber attacks against Japan. Around 200 Japanese organizations, including the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, are believed to have been targeted by Chinese cyber hackers. Reports suggest that Chinese military hackers have also accessed Japanese defence secrets.
As part of the process leading to the Summit of the Future in 2024, the UN Secretary-General has issued a new Policy Brief – the ninth in its series – outlining proposals for a New Agenda for Peace. Not missing in the Policy Brief are references to digital technologies and the challenges they pose for peace and security.
The document highlights the perils of weaponising new and emerging technologies, such as the proliferation of armed uncrewed aerial systems, the ease of access to powerful tools that facilitate the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech, and the misuse of digital technology by terrorist groups.
Among the 12 sets of recommendations detailed in the Policy Brief as steps towards achieving more effective multilateral action for peace and security, one is dedicated to ‘preventing the weaponisation of emerging domains and promote responsible innovation’. Here, the Secretary-General calls for:
- The development of governance frameworks, at the international and national levels, to minimise harms and address the cross-cutting risks posed by converging technologies.
- The establishment of an independent multilateral accountability mechanism for malicious use of cyberspace by states, to reduce incentives for such conduct. Such a mechanism, the Secretary-General argues, could enhance compliance with agreed norms and principles of responsible state behaviour.
- The conclusion, by 2026, of a legally binding instrument to prohibit lethal autonomous weapon systems that function without human control or oversight, and which cannot be used in compliance with international humanitarian law, and to regulate all other types of autonomous weapons systems.
- The development of frameworks to mitigate risks relating to AI-enabled systems in the peace and security domain. The Secretary-General specifically mentions the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as governance approaches that member states could seek inspiration from. He also invites member states to consider the creation of a new global body to mitigate the peace and security risks of AI while harnessing its benefits to accelerate sustainable development.
- The development of norms, rules and principles around the design, development, and use of military applications of AI through a multilateral process, with the engagement of stakeholders from industry, academia, civil society and other sectors.
- The development of a global framework regulating and strengthening oversight mechanisms for the use of data-driven technology, including AI, for counter-terrorism purposes.
- The development of measures to address the risks involved in biotechnology and human enhancement technologies applied in the military domain.
The UK National Cyber Force (NCF) – a partnership between the country’s armed forces and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – disclosed details about its approach to ‘responsible cyber operations to counter state threats, support military operations, and disrupt terrorists and serious criminals’.
The document outlines that central to NCF’s approach is the ‘doctrine of cognitive effect’ – using techniques that have the potential to sow distrust, decrease morale, and weaken the adversaries’ ability to plan and conduct their activities effectively with the goal of changing their behaviour. This can include preventing terrorist groups from publishing pieces of extremist media online or making it harder for states to use the internet to spread disinformation. NCF’s operations are covert, and the intent is sometimes that adversaries do not realise that the effects they are experiencing are the result of a cyber operation.
‘In an increasingly volatile and interconnected world, to be a truly responsible cyber power, nations must be able to contest and compete with adversaries in cyberspace,’ GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming said. The statement was published alongside a 28-page paper designed ‘to illustrate aspects of how the UK is being a responsible cyber power’. It did not elaborate on the specifics of those operations.
The biggest internet service provider in Russia, Rostelecom, reports that 2022 saw a record number of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against Russian organisations.
According to the Rostelecom report, its experts recorded 21.5 million critical web attacks aimed at approximately 600 organizations from various industries, including critical infrastructure, financial, and the private and public sectors. DDoS assaults accounted for 80% of all cyberattacks directed at Russian entities.
Other findings suggest that 30% of all observed cyberattacks in 2022 targeted the governmental sector, followed by 25% on financial organisations and services and 16% on educational institutions.
With more than 500,000 DDoS attempts found, Moscow was the most often targeted region in 2022. The largest documented attack was 760 GB/sec, while the longest DDoS lasted nearly three months.
The Computer Emergency Response Team of Ukraine (CERT-UA) argues that a damaging malware attack on the national news agency Ukrinform on 17 January 2023 was carried out by the Sandworm hacking group (said to be associated with Russian armed forces).
The State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection (SSSCIP) of Ukraine announced that ‘according to preliminary data, provided by CERT-UA specialists, the attack has caused certain destructive effects on the agency’s information infrastructure, but the threat has been swiftly localized nonetheless. This enabled Ukrinform to continue its operation.’
US cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks’ Unit 42 (a threat intelligence group) issued a report outlining continuous operations by the advanced persistent threat (APT) group Trident Ursa – a group attributed to Russia’s Federal Security Service by the Security Service of Ukraine. According to Unit 42’s assessments, Trident Ursa has remained ‘one of the most pervasive, intrusive, continuously active and focused APTs targeting Ukraine’.
Following ten months of monitoring indicators of the group’s operations, Unit 42 announced that it had identified, among other issues:
- ‘An unsuccessful attempt to compromise a large petroleum refining company within a NATO member nation on 30 August 2022’ (neither the country nor the company concerned was named).
- ‘An individual who appears to be involved with Trident Ursa threatened to harm a Ukraine-based cybersecurity researcher immediately following the initial invasion.’
- ‘Multiple shifts in [the group’s] tactics, techniques and procedures.’
In October 2022, Amnesty International Canada detected and investigated a sophisticated digital security breach. The organisation announced that, according to forensic experts at the cybersecurity firm Secureworks, the attack was likely orchestrated by ‘a threat group sponsored or tasked by the Chinese state’. The conclusion was based ‘on the nature of the targeted information as well as the observed tools and behaviors, which are consistent with those associated with Chinese cyberespionage threat groups’. China’s embassy in Ottawa denied the allegations.
Microsoft has warned that Russian cyberattacks are likely to continue to target Ukrainian critical infrastructure, and may also target countries and companies that are providing Ukraine with vital supply chains of aid and weaponry. The company also noted that ‘cyber-enabled influence operations’ that target Europe are likely to be conducted in parallel with cyberthreat activity.
Microsoft also announced that its AI for Good Lab has created a Russian Propaganda Index (RPI) ‘to monitor the consumption of news from Russian state-controlled and sponsored news outlets and amplifiers’. Compared to other Western Europe countries, Germans read and watch significantly more Russian propaganda, the AI for Good Lab found.