Hackers can do a huge amount of damage with a computer. Their motives are varied. Some use their power out of conviction, others for money, while some follow orders. State-sponsored hackers, online activists and whistleblowers fight for all kinds of different objectives. Militarily inferior states often use cyberspace as a way to avoid conventional confrontation yet fight hegemonial powers with unconventional means.
Professor Dr. George R. Lucas, Jr. calls all these digital pinpricks “soft war”. In contrast to real war, soft war is deliberately conducted without using physical force. It allows the parties involved to exploit the legal gray area of cyberspace in an uncontrolled manner, for online attacks and demonstrations of power.
International law and its clear rules are no use here, and are simply unable to cope with the complexity of the Internet, Lucas argues. For this reason, he adds, even an extension of existing provisions, such as in the Tallinn Manual, has little prospect of success.
Instead, therefore, he advocates “soft laws” in place of hard international law. Soft rules of this kind could be the best way of dealing with a soft war, and hence with cyberwarfare. Here Lucas draws on the practical experiences of the cyber powers, and proposes special “emergent norms” to regulate soft war. He believes that these informal normative arrangements would make relations between states more stable in the long term, since cyber powers have a clear interest in not accidentally starting a real war via a cyberattack. Lucas sees potential in a common understanding of “proportionate response” to cyberattacks. In case of doubt, dramatically lower casualties in cyber conflicts should always be preferred over a real war.