Even cyberwar has rules, and one group of experts is publishing a manual to prove it.
A handbook due to be published later this week applies the venerable practice of international law to the world of electronic warfare in an effort to show how hospitals, civilians, and neutral nations can be protected in an information age fight.
"Everyone was seeing the Internet as the `Wild, Wild, West,"' U.S. Naval War College Professor Michael Schmidt, the manual's editor, said in an interview ahead of its official release. "What they had forgotten is that international law applies to cyberweapons like it applies to any other weapons."
The Tallinn Manual -- named for the Estonian capital where it was compiled -- was created at the behest of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence, a NATO think tank. It takes existing rules on battlefield behavior -- such as the 1949 Geneva Convention -- to the Internet, occasionally in creative or unexpected ways.
The manual's central premise is that war doesn't stop being war just because it happens online. Hacking a dam's controls to release its reservoir into a river valley can have the same effect as breaching it with explosives, its authors argue. Legally speaking, a cyberattack which sparks a fire at a military base is indistinguishable from an attack that uses an incendiary shell.
The humanitarian protections don't disappear online either. Medical computers get the same protection that brick-and-mortar hospitals do. The personal data related to prisoners of war have to be kept safe in the same way that the prisoners themselves are -- for example by having the information stored separately from military servers which might be subject to attack.
Cyberwar can lead to cyberwar crimes, the manual warned. Launching an attack from a neutral nation's computer network is forbidden in much the same way that hostile armies aren't allowed to march through a neutral country's territory. Shutting down the Internet in an occupied area in retaliation against a rebel cyberattack could fall afoul of international prohibitions on collective punishment.
Marco Roscini, who teaches international law at London's University of Westminster, described the 282-page manual as well-drafted and comprehensive, predicting that it would play an important role as military lawyers across the world grapple with issues of online warfare.
"I'm sure it will be quite influential," he said.