What just war theory can tell about cyber attacks against Iran

There is a fascinating debate going on right now about the propriety of hacking Iranian government sites.

So far, the preferred method of attack for many online activists is something called Distributed Denial of Service attack, or DDOS attack for short. There are a variety of ways to mount this kind of attack, but the idea is basically to flood certain websites with too much activity for the sites or servers to perform properly. (There are even a number of websites one can visit and programs one can download to partake in a DDOS attack.)

As Evgeny Morozov explains, Twitter has been used as an organizing tool for launching DDOS attacks. And a number of high profile web-folk like this Daily Kos diarist and Tech President founder contributor Patrick Ruffini are cheer leading for the cause. But as Morozov points out, these attacks may not just bring down Iranian government sites – it may threaten Internet access throughout all of Iran. If these attacks keep pace, online activists outside of Iran could unwittingly cause the entire meltdown of Iran’s fragile Internet infrastructure.

Not unlike a coordinated bombing campaign against duel-use infrastructure like bridges and roadways, an organized DDOS attack campaign raises a number of moral and ethical questions. DDOS attacks are, after all, attacks. They are real and can be as destructive as conventional attacks on a country’s bridges or roadways.

The problem is, it seems that the proponents of these attacks have not wrestled with the difficult moral questions surrounding the likely consequences of their actions. In particular, they don’t seem to have considered the so-called “double effect” of an attack on Iranian government websites. Simply stated, the Just War Theory principal known as double effect seeks to explain how one can justify the foreseen negative consequences of an action (like bombing civilians) if the intended end result (like ending a war) is sufficiently good. An oft cited example is the dilemma over whether or not to bomb a military outpost that is next to a school; the outpost will be destroyed, but so too might a school full of children.

I think there are similar forces at work in the debate over whether or not to continue the DDOS attacks. These attacks may disrupt government propaganda sites like IRIN News, but so too might these attacks end up disrupting critical modes of civilian communications. Also, as Michael Roston artfully explains, such attacks seem contrary to the principals of free speech and open access to information.

To be sure, there are conditions under which these kinds of attacks can be defended. But I have yet to see any proponent of DDOS attacks explain in moral terms how he or she can justify the likely harm that will be visited upon “non-combatants” should these attacks continue.