Following debate on this answer about what constitutes a violation of sovereignty. I'm asking this as an independent question.

Under current international law, does a cyber attack constitute as a violation of sovereignty?

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    This seems to be getting somewhat far afield. The question isn't what is a violation of sovereignty, it's what North Korea regards as a violation in terms of its "no-first-strike" policy. Unless you can tighten this (e.g. by whose definition), this question is likely to get closed as Too Broad. List/catch-all questions are not generally good fits for this site. You could also flip this around and ask specifically about each scenario. That would also be more narrow, although it still risks being opinion-based if you can't narrow down to a standard (UN? ICC?).
    – Brythan
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 23:51
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    Anything that the local politicians dislike is usually called a violation. Commented May 22, 2017 at 6:39
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    To put it another way, every body has their own different definition of what a sovreregnity constitutes. There are some common baseline things (almost) everyone would agree on; but the whole premise of what you're asking from is about specific edge cases that are NOT universally agreed on between all countries.
    – user4012
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 13:48
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    Additional problem is that there's a difference between "X violates sovereignty in theory" and "X will be treated as a violation of sovereignty in practice with some material consequences expected from sovereignty violation" - in other words, countries often tend to look the other way at minor violations that aren't worth starting a conflict over (think U-2 flights over USSR).
    – user4012
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 13:50
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    I'm voting to reopen this. We identified a problem with the question, and it was addressed. However, I still think that this is irrelevant. It's not what we think or what international precedent says. As the policy is entirely Kim Jong Un's, so is the interpretation. If he treats a cyberattack as a violation of sovereignty as Democrats claim to view the possibility that Russia stole information and leaked it is a violation of sovereignty, then he can use it to justify an attack. It's not like there's an international referee that can tell him no.
    – Brythan
    Commented May 24, 2017 at 20:29

1 Answer 1


The WaPo has a good rule of thumb based upon American interpretation of international law:

The government has defined an armed attack in cyberspace as one that results in death, injury or significant destruction, as Harold Koh, the State Department’s chief legal adviser, recently put it. Here’s the rule of thumb, as Koh stated it: “If the physical consequences of a cyberattack work the kind of physical damage that dropping a bomb or firing a missile would, that cyberattack should equally be considered a use of force.” If an attack reaches those levels, then a nation has a right to act in self-defense.

A Columbian Law Professor has come to the same conclusions of equating a cyber attack effects with real life armed attacks. Same source:

Matthew Waxman, a Columbia University law professor who studies the strategic dimensions of cyberattacks, said economic damage alone traditionally does not give rise to a right of self-defense. While “the erasure of data . . . is expensive to replace,” he said, “I would not call that an armed attack.”

Note that some security officials have internal definitions of the extensiveness of damage that would be considered an act of war which they are not willing to share.

  • Is an act of war the only thing that can violate a nation's sovereignty? Commented May 26, 2017 at 15:44
  • @indigochild Also "acts of aggression" in the UN parlance. But they mean the same thing. If there are additional examples they are uncommon and I haven't found them.
    – user9790
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 16:00

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