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Six Criteria for Evaluating Cyber Attacks as Armed Attacks


Michael N. Schmitt’s Six Criteria

The meaning of these criteria are as follows:

1. Severity looks at the scope and intensity of an attack. Analysis under this criterion examines the number of people killed, size of the area attacked, and amount of property damage done. The greater the damage, the more powerful the argument becomes for treating the cyber attack as an armed attack.

2. Immediacy looks at the duration of a cyber attack, as well as other timing factors. Analysis under this criterion examines the amount of time the cyber attack lasted and the duration of time that the effects were felt. The longer the duration and effects of an attack, the stronger the argument that it was an armed attack.

3. Directness looks at the harm caused. If the attack was the proximate cause of the harm, it strengthens the argument that the cyber attack was an armed attack. If the harm was caused in full or in part by other parallel attacks, the weaker the argument that the cyber attack was an armed attack.

4. Invasiveness looks at the locus of the attack. An invasive attack is one that physically crosses state borders, or electronically crosses borders and causes harm within the victim-state. The more invasive the cyber attack, the more it looks like an armed attack.

5. Measurability tries to quantify the damage done by the cyber attack. Quantifiable harm is generally treated more seriously in the international community. The more a state can quantify the harm done to it, the more the cyber attack looks like an armed attack. Speculative harm generally makes a weak case that a cyber attack was an armed attack.

6. Presumptive legitimacy focuses on state practice and the accepted norms of behavior in the international community. Actions may gain legitimacy under the law when the international community accepts certain behavior as legitimate. The less a cyber attack looks like accepted state practice, the stronger the argument that it is an illegal use of force or an armed attack.


See Schmitt, supra note 16, at 913–15; see also Wingfield, T. 2000. The Law of Information Conflict: National Security Law in Cyberspace. Ageis Research Corp. 124–27 (examining Schmitt’s use of force analysis).

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