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Cyber Conflict Uncoded: The EU and conflict prevention in cyberspace

The proliferation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), both the expansion of usage and the increased availability of harmful means, has brought about new ways of power projection. Political and economic contestation between states now involves targeted cyber-attacks against other countries’ utilities, financial networks, election infrastructure and governance systems. Cyber-attacks – a deliberate use of malicious software for exploiting or altering computer code, data or logic to cause harm – offer new methods to target internet infrastructure, telecommunications networks, information systems, as well as computers and computer systems. Such activities might have the objective of destroying or affecting the proper functioning of these systems with adverse effects for their users – whether states, companies, public service providers or individuals.3 As a result, power projection does not have to involve tanks or missiles; nor does it have to result in direct death and destruction comparable to armed conflict. Confrontation is, however, a constant in states’ ambitions, attitudes and capabilities, blurring the line between war and peace. 

This Conflict Series Brief examines the current practices and future possibilities of preventive action in relation to conflict in cyberspace. When categorising state uses of ICTs as a form of conflict, attention should be paid to three considerations. First, hostile uses of ICTs rarely occur outside of a pre-existing or broader politico-military dispute. Second, a malicious state use of ICTs can lead to an escalation in pre-existing adversarial relations. Third, the use of cyber capabilities in a conflict situation often includes the targeting of civilian infrastructure and therefore has wide-ranging implications for the proper functioning of societies. Against this background, this Brief argues that the use of malicious cyber tools for power projection can and must be prevented. 

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