Ukraine shows new technologies make war deadlier for civilians

Wars today are not fought solely through kinetic operations on the battlefield. They are fought in multiple fields that see sophisticated new technologies exploited alongside more traditional ammunition. 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 not only changing the means and methods of warfare, but also the ways in which humanitarian actors intervene.

Among the many issues and concerns that new technologies raise for civilians in conflict, four areas deserve particular attention: data protection; misinformation, disinformation and hate speech; cyber war; and autonomous weapon systems.

An elderly woman in a wheelchair is evacuated from Irpin, Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown how new technologies have increased the chances of civilians being caught in the crossfire. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Cybersecurity for civilians as new technologies make war deadlier

Data is often called the new oil, but it could 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 but a few. While collecting and managing this personal data can make us more effective in helping those affected, it can be a matter of life and death if it falls into the wrong hands. As such, we must be extremely careful about minimizing the data we collect and protecting the information we hold.

The ICRC operates in some of the most dangerous contexts in the world; therefore, we always seek to build trust and respect with the fighters so that they do not attack us. We know very well, however, that there is no guarantee against an attack. Unfortunately, the same situation applies online. Earlier this year we discovered a sophisticated cyberattack against ICRC servers hosting data belonging to more than 515,000 people worldwide. Of course, there are lessons to be learned in terms of improving our cyber defenses, and we recognize that military-grade cybersecurity cannot be a realistic ambition for humanitarian organizations. It may also be time for the ICRC to start engaging with affected groups who carry out cyberattacks in order to build the same trust and respect for our purely humanitarian mission as we would with armed combatants.

In recent years, many cyber incidents have affected civilian infrastructure. Often, these incidents occur in contexts of political tension or armed conflict. Cyber ​​operations that disrupt medical facilities or interrupt energy and water supplies pose a significant risk to civilian populations. Our point of view is clear: cyber tools must be designed and deployed in compliance 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 humanitarians. They could, for example, be used to help reunite families by analyzing large amounts of data, or to inform 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 are not a work of science fiction from a distant dystopian future. They are an immediate cause of humanitarian, legal and ethical concern and must be addressed now.

For the ICRC, autonomous weapons select and apply force on targets without human intervention. After initial activation by a person, an autonomous weapon fires a strike in response to information from the environment – ​​received through sensors and software – and based on a generalized “target profile”. The user does not choose, or even know, the specific target, or the precise time or location of the strike. The lack of human control and judgment – ​​and the difficulties in anticipating and controlling the resulting effects – are at the heart of our concerns. The ICRC is recommend that states adopt new legally binding rules to ban unpredictable autonomous weapons and those that directly apply force to people, and to establish strict constraints on all others.

Propaganda Wars

The final major digital risk facing civilians in conflict zones is misinformation, disinformation and hate speech (MDH). With the pervasiveness of digital technologies and communication systems in humanitarian contexts, ‘information fog’ is accelerating and exacerbating the ‘fog of war’. This brings new layers of complexity, uncertainty and risk to people and communities affected by conflict and violence.

MDH has always been prominent in conflict zones, but the digitization of societies and information ecosystems has introduced new paradigms of scale, speed and reach. Although much attention is paid to how MDH affects democracy and public health, there is an urgent need to focus on conflict zones, where risks are high and safeguards and resilience mechanisms weak.

In war zones, what is said online can have harmful repercussions in the real world, not only for civilians, but also for those trying to protect them. Indeed, the ICRC has been the subject of disinformation and disinformation in the Ukrainian conflict. It’s not the first time we’ve been targeted and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But every time this happens, it puts Red Cross staff, volunteers and the people we seek to help at risk.

We must learn to better manage the impact of MDH on our operations, as well as on citizens who find themselves at the epicenter of conflict zones. Indeed, all humanitarian and armed actors need to think carefully about the true impact of new technologies in conflict zones. We all have responsibilities. For those who wage war, they must assess the risks to civilians and ensure full respect for international law. Humanitarian organizations, on the other hand, must use technology responsibly and be careful to do no harm. If the ICRC is to continue to be useful on the battlefield, we will need to continue to adapt and evolve as technology advances. Lives depend on it.

  • Balthasar Staehelin is Director of Digital and Data Transformation for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

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