Cyber-espionage in international law

Silence speaks

Thibault Moulin
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While espionage among nations is a long-standing practice, the emergence of the internet has challenged the traditional legal framework and has resulted in the intensification of intelligence activities. In fact, espionage was subject to indirect regulation, which applied where a spy was (often at their own risk) trespassing on foreign territory or sent behind enemy lines. With the emergence of cyber-espionage, however, agents may collect intelligence from within their own jurisdictions, with a great deal of secrecy and less risk. This monograph argues that – save for some exceptions – this activity has been subject to normative avoidance. It means that it is neither prohibited – as spying does not result in an internationally wrongful act – nor authorised, permitted or subject to a right – as States are free to prevent and fight foreign cyber-espionage activities. However, States are aware of such status of law, and are not interested in any further regulation. This situation did not emerge by happenstance but rather via the purposeful silence of States – leaving them free to pursue cyber-espionage themselves at the same time as they adopt measures to prevent falling victim to it. To proceed, this monograph resorts to a first-class sample of State practice and analyses several rules and treaties: territorial sovereignty, collective security and international humanitarian law (i.e. the rules applicable between belligerent and neutral Powers, as well as between belligerents themselves), the law of diplomatic relations, human rights law, international law and European economic law. It also demonstrates that no specific customary law has emerged in the field.

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