Cyber Humanitarian Interventions: The viability and ethics of using cyber-operations to disrupt perpetrators’ means and motivations for atrocities in the digital age

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Copyright: Neilsen, Rhiannon
In the contemporary digital age, mass atrocity crimes are increasingly promoted and organised online. Yet, little attention has been afforded to the question of whether proactive cyberspace operations might be used for human protection purposes. Beginning with the framework of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), this thesis asks: How might cyber-operations be used ethically to protect populations from mass atrocity crimes? To answer this question, I introduce the concept of ‘cyber humanitarian interventions’, and argue that such measures can be used to disrupt potential perpetrators’ means and motivations for atrocities. Specifically, I contend that cyber humanitarian interventions can be used to frustrate potential perpetrators’ communication channels, logistical supply chains, and funding, as well as to stymie potential perpetrators’ desire for violence via online, targeted, tailor-made campaigns based on their big data. These capabilities can be used in an ethically acceptable manner, and thus ought to be pursued prior to the resort to other more forceful measures to protect. Moreover, and perhaps more controversially, I argue that, in some circumstances, there is a qualified responsibility to deceive potential perpetrators – via online disinformation – in order to fulfil responsibilities to protect. This thesis seeks to make three key contributions. First, it contributes to extant literatures on R2P, atrocity prevention, and cyberspace by offering cyber humanitarian interventions as a hitherto neglected tool for human protection. Second, it furthers ethical debates on atrocity prevention by providing an in-depth analysis of how cyber humanitarian interventions can be deployed ethically. Third, it challenges prevailing conceptions of disinformation by arguing that that there is, in fact, a qualified responsibility to deceive potential perpetrators into not committing atrocities via online disinformation. In sum, this thesis aims to bring 21st century capabilities to bear on centuries-old crimes, and highlights cyber humanitarian interventions as a more peaceful, cost-effective, and politically palatable tool to protect vulnerable populations from mass atrocity crimes.
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Neilsen, Rhiannon
Erskine, Toni
Burke, Anthony
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PhD Doctorate
UNSW Faculty
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