On October 4, the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a division of the GCHQ, issued a news release attributing multiple cyber campaigns to Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. They were, according to the NCSC, designed to ‘undermine [the] international sporting institution WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency], disrupt transport systems in Ukraine, destabilise democracies and target businesses’.
The release was notable in two regards. As the campaigns were conducted by the GRU, an organ of the Russian government, Russia is legally responsible under the law of State responsibility for any violations of international law that may have occurred. Second, the release stated that the operations were ‘conducted in flagrant violation of international law’. Indeed, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, whom the release quoted, observed, ‘[t]his pattern of behaviour demonstrates their desire to operate without regard to international law or established norms and to do so with a feeling of impunity and without consequences’.
Unfortunately, neither the NCSC nor the Foreign Secretary delineated those rules of international law that Russia allegedly violated or otherwise undermined. In this post, we attempt to tease loose the legal significance of the operations by measuring them against the recently enunciated UK positions on international law in the cyber context. Attorney General Jeremy Wright set forth these positions in a 23 May Chatham House speech. We first highlight the UK approach to the key international law prohibitions that are relevant vis-à-vis the Russian operations. Second, we assess the operations themselves against the UK position on these legal rules. Finally, we conclude by making the point that legal policy decisions with respect to cyberspace may prove a double-edged sword. Compelling reasons may exist for adopting particular positions regarding international law norms in cyberspace, but seldom are those positions cost-free. In particular, we suggest that the United Kingdom’s rejection of a rule requiring respect for the sovereignty of other States eliminates its most defensible basis for arguing that the Russian cyber campaigns undermined international law. Other States should bear this in mind before following suit.