Smartphones blur the line between civilian and combatant | MarketingwithAnoy

As Russia continues its unprovoked armed aggression, reports from Ukraine Note that smartphones in civilians’ pockets can be “weapons that are powerful in their own way like rockets and artillery.” In fact, technologists in the country have quickly created remarkable apps to keep citizens safe and help the war effort – everything from a app for air attack alarm for the rapid reuse of the government’s Diia app. The latter was once used by more than 18 million Ukrainians for things like digital IDs, but now allows users to report movements of invading soldiers through the “e-Enemy” feature. “Anyone can help our army locate Russian troops. Use our chatbot to inform the Armed Forces,” the Ministry of Digital Transformation said of the new capability as it rolled out.

Of course, the Ukrainian people want to defend their country and help their army in any way they can. However, certain applications of digital technology pose fundamental challenges to the traditional distinction between civilians and combatants in modern times.

Technically, as soon as a user in a war zone picks up a smartphone to help the army, both the technology and the individual can be considered as sensors or hubs in practice known as ISR – intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Inviting citizens to become a potential element of a military system, as the e-Enemy function does, can blur the boundaries between civilian and combatant activity.

That the principle of distinction between the two roles is a critical cornerstone of international humanitarian law – the law of armed conflict, codified by decades of customs and laws such as the Geneva Conventions. Those considered civilian and civilian targets must not be attacked by military forces; since they are not combatants, they should be spared. At the same time, they should not act as combatants either – if they do, they could lose this status.

The riddle is thus how to classify a civilian person who, using their smartphone, potentially becomes an active participant in a military sensor system. (To be clear, it is not enough just to have the app installed to lose the protected status. The crucial thing is actually use.) Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions states that civilians enjoy protection against the “dangers arising from military operations unless and as long as they take a direct part in hostilities.” Legally, if civilians engage in military activity, such as engaging in hostilities through the use of weapons, they lose their protected status, “during the time they are directly involved in hostilities”, which “affects[s] the military operations, ”according to International Committee of the Red Cross, the traditional impartial guardian of international humanitarian law. This is the case even if the persons concerned are not formal members of the Armed Forces. By losing civilian status, one can become a legitimate military target that carries the risk of being directly attacked by military forces.

The most obvious way to resolve this confusion may be to accept that a user-civilian temporarily loses their protected civilian status, at least while using such an app. In some cases, this can be a minute-long “status switch”, just as quick as taking your smartphone out of your pocket, taking a picture or writing a short message. It is not direct, sustained participation in the conflict, but rather an occasional one. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it is not established and not all sides will necessarily agree on it. The situation becomes even more complex if someone uses the app regularly. How would “regular” be measured at all? And how exactly will the parties to the conflict distinguish the citizens accordingly? The power of certain smartphones used to transform a civilian person into a kind of “combatant” one minute and back to a civilian the next, introduces unprecedented complications to the laws of war that have long existed.

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