Having gone off to fight in a war, you might shake your head when I tell you that Cyber War is not war. It’s not that I do not have a sense of humor. I love the cartoon that has floated around where a grandfather is telling his grandson about a battle against bots that he was barely able to get out of alive. I am not making this contention because I do not see any correlation between intrusions and disruptions in cyberspace with the physical world. From Stuxnet to the hacking of Ukraine’s power grid, there should be no doubt that intrusions and disruptions in cyberspace can intrude and disrupt the physical world. However, while it is understandable that these can be attributed to actions taken in during a conflict between nations (allegedly), most cyber activities do not necessarily reach the level of war.
And yet, nations around the world have established arms within their militaries to fight in cyberspace. The United States has Cyber Command, China has the 3rd Department, allegedly Iran has the Iran Cyber Army, Germany is building CIR within the Bundeswehr, and the list goes on. You would think that if all of these militaries are building or have cyber war capabilities within their armed forces that cyber war must equate war. Yet, while there is a place within war for cyber capabilities, those capabilities in it and of themselves does not equate to cyber war, nor has the way in which similar capabilities have been used up to this point in time equal war.
The cynic in me would say that the only reason that politicians, generals, and the media exclaim “cyber war” is because when you attach war on to something the population fears it and money flows towards it. Want to end poverty? Call it a “War on Poverty”. Want to end rampant drug use in the inner cities? Call it a “War on Drugs”. Are too many people overweight in your country? Not a problem, get them skinnier by calling it a “War on Obesity”. Unfortunately, it appears that Edwin Starr was correct, war is good for nothing.
Not being a complete cynic, I can understand why those politicians, generals, and the media proclaim us to be locked into a continual cyber war. It appears that many of our institutions, safeguards, and companies are under constant attack. Work for or support the U.S. government? Your sensitive information has been stolen and somewhere there is a dossier on you that has you in a relationship network. Designing classified instruments and features for a US military aircraft? You’ve probably seen something eerily similar at Chinese military air shows. Send a private email to someone within the Democratic National Committee? That email is not private anymore. What else can we call something when it is believed that nation state actors are responsible for these undertakings?
This lurching search and uncertainty of what to consider these actions leads some to proclaim that this is not in fact a cyber war, but a cyber COLD war. Which if we are to apply the actions of the Cold War to this cyber cold war, means that the US is going to involve itself in multiple actions not aimed at the target country but their spreading ideology, while the other country enforces and spreads its ideology to weaker nations, ending up with both of us involving ourselves in the same country only 12 years apart. While the Cold War had the inherent risk of destroying mankind, our current cyber cold war, while disruptive and could annihilate avatars across the world, is not war, and to equate it to war provides the chance for an incensed nation to delete the cyber in front of war.
Therefore, if cyber war does not equal war, and giving it the modifier cold is complete nonsense, where do both the citizens and governments of the world find themselves? What are all of us facing? What should we call it? Interestingly enough there are two pejorative terms that lends themselves well to what we are facing: propaganda and espionage.