The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, in Laurel, recently collaborated with the International Committee of the Red Cross to develop a technical framework to replicate the protection signaled by the ICRC’s physical emblems in the digital world. APL worked with the ICRC on a two-year research effort that included global experts from academic, humanitarian and technical organizations.

The team looked at how a digital emblem could mark and identify medical and humanitarian entities’ digital assets, services and data. The emblem would signal their protected status.

In defining how a digital emblem would work, APL first addressed a much broader question.

“We build things at APL. We wanted to know, could we build a norm in cyberspace to assure a more stable Internet?” said Erin Hahn, managing executive in APL’s National Security Analysis Department. “It’s hard to articulate a norm when there is not already behavior behind it. We know it helps to have a galvanizing principle that people can get behind. People can grasp the idea of a digital emblem. The emblem offers a small, concrete step to establish more common norms for cyber operations.”

So APL began by looking at how other norms were established. For example, governments, freight companies and seamen used to argue over fishing rights, piracy and pollution from ships. Over time, the relevant actors agreed on responsible norms of behavior and eventually, these norms were codified as the law of the sea — an international agreement that helps to maintain order and peaceful relations on the sea.

“While the physical emblem is already recognized under international law, it will take some time for governments to agree to the recognition of its digital equivalent,” said Kerstin Vignard, senior security analyst in NSAD. “In the meantime, proving the technical feasibility of such an emblem and garnering support from relevant stakeholders — including governments, Internet service providers and humanitarian organizations — are essential to building a norm that recognizes the digital assets, services and data of medical and humanitarian entities should have the same legal protection in the digital world as they have in the physical one.”