This week, the 28 member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Oganization will meet in Warsaw, Poland, to discuss the future of the world’s largest military alliance. At the Warsaw Summit, NATO is expected to classify cyperspace as “Operational Territory,” making the online and digital property of member states equivalent to their geographic territory. In other words, if a foreign state messes with a NATO country’s computers, it might as well have just rolled a tank over their border. While NATO’s proclamation shows that the battlefield of the future is changing rapidly, it also proves that no one is completely sure how to conduct cyberwarfare yet.
“When I read this [proclamation], I read it like the Nigerian constitution being hard on corruption — it’s aspirational. It’s not in and of itself something that will lead to a huge outcome of change,” Josef Ansorge, author of Identify & Sort, a book which examines the role of information technology in international relations, tells Inverse.
NATO’s operates as a “collective defense” organization. Under Article Five of the official treaty, an attack on any member nation constitutes an attack on the whole alliance, who will respond in kind. The new rule technically means a cyber attack on any NATO member state would also trigger Article 5, but Ansorge says digital attacks often aren’t as clear cut as physical violence, nor is retaliating to them. Ansorge says the digital battlefield raises three crucial conundrums to world leaders: how to legally classify digital attacks, establish the perpetrators of the attack, and how to respond proportionally. In short, cyberwarfare gets very complicated, very quickly.