“Was USS John S. McCain hacked through HP’s Navy/Marine Corps Intranet?”
Source: Council on Foreign Relations
A Cyber Norms Hypothetical: What If the USS John S. McCain Was Hacked?
There has been some wild speculation that a foreign nation might have hacked the navigation systems on the USS John S. McCain. Assuming it is plausible, what would be the implications for international law?
by David P. Fidler • August 23, 2017
The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain is seen after a collision. Ahmad Masood/Reuters
The collision between the USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker in the Straits of Malacca has led some to speculate—without any evidence—that the tragedy could have been caused by a foreign nation that hacked the destroyer’s navigation system. Some of the speculation connected the McCain collision with the incident earlier this summer when a container ship struck the USS Fitzgerald off the Japanese coast in June. The Fitzgerald investigation has turned up no indications of cyber foul play and identified other factors behind the collision, such as poor seamanship. The evaluation of the McCain incident will probably produce similar conclusions. However, the incidents provide an interesting hypothetical: how would international law treat the collisions if they were the result of state-sponsored cyber operations? And what would it mean for the cyber norms debate?
The Fitzgerald and McCain accidents resulted in significant damage to naval vessels and deaths and injuries to sailors. If done by a foreign nation, then hacking the navigation systems would be an illegal use of force under international law. As the Tallinn Manual 2.0 states, “consequences involving physical harm to individuals or property will in and of themselves qualify a cyber operation as a use of force.” Compromising navigational systems through cyber means clearly creates serious risks to ships and crew associated with collisions at sea, especially for ships, such as the McCain, sailing in heavily trafficked waters. Creating these risks satisfies the need for cause and effect to be closely related in acts considered uses of force under international law.
In this scenario, the targets were naval vessels not merchant ships, which means the hacking threatened and damaged core national security interests and military assets of the United States. In the peacetime circumstances of these incidents, no nation could argue that such a use of force had a plausible justification under international law. And every country knows the United States reserves the right to use force in self-defense if it is the victim of an illegal use of force.
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