Cyber mongering and semantic misuse

Michael Hirsh at National Journal has a sober article titled “Here, There Be Dragons” on cyberwar mongering

In truth, cyberskeptics abound. They include many independent analysts as well as some of Panetta’s high-level colleagues in the Obama administration. These skeptics say that much of the alarm stems from a fear of the unknown rather than from concrete evidence of life-and-death threats. It is, they suggest, a 21st-century version of the medieval mapmakers who would mark the boundaries of the known world and then draw mythical beasts on the other side conveying the message: “Here, there be dragons.”

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The White House’s own cybersecurity coordinator, Howard Schmidt, pointedly avoids using the term “cyberwar,” saying that most cyberthreats are closer to criminal acts than to military actions. “Words do matter,” Schmidt remarked at a conference in February. “When we start throwing out these things, like we’re in the midst of a cyberwar, or that cyberwar is around the corner, there’s a lot of [those things] that don’t actually apply, so we really have to define what it is that we’re talking about.”

In a recent Takshashila Executive program I made it a point to draw the distinction between cyber events, cyber crime, cyber attacks, cyber war and cyber terrorism. The nature of the audience warranted this, but my belief is that Schmidt is absolutely right that words do matter and that we at large do not overuse the words that have specific meaning and in the process weaken the case against threats that do really exist. James Lewis from CSIS had a similar message in his article Cyber Attacks, Real or Imagined, and Cyber War

Only by adopting an exceptionally elastic definition of cyber attack can we say they are frequent. There have been many annoyances, much crime, and rampant spying, but the only incidents that have caused physical damage or disruption to critical services are the alleged Israeli use of cyber attack to disrupt Syrian air defenses and the Stuxnet attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

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Nations are afraid of cyber war and are careful to stay below the threshold of what could be considered under international law the use of force or an act of war. Crime, even if state sponsored, does not justify a military response. Countries do not go to war over espionage. There is intense hostile activity in cyberspace, but it stays below the threshold of attack.

 

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