Cyber what? (part 2 of 2)

An in-depth of examination of the terms “cyber war,” “cyber terrorism,” “cyber vandalism” and “cyber espionage”

This is part two of a two part series on cyber space, cyber war and other concepts. (See part 1.)

All the different “cyber” terms sure are confusing and it’s no help that many of the terms used to describe the threat actor behind a cyber attack are often used interchangeably. In part I, we established what constitutes a “cyber attack” within “cyberspace”. Now the real fun begins – we’ll dissect the four most commonly confused terms: “cyber war,” cyber terrorism,” “cyber vandalism” and “cyber espionage” and provide a common lexicon. The objective is to dispel myths and, by establishing common understanding, provide a way for managers to cut to the chase and understand risk without all the FUD. The graph below shows the four terms and attributes at a glance.

screen shot 2015 03 22 at 9.48.47 pm Tony Martin-Vegue

Now let’s dig into each individual definition and examine the fundamentals.

Cyber warfare

Cyber warfare is the most misused terms in this list. The U.S. Strategic Command’s Cyber Warfare Lexicon defines cyber warfare as:

Creation of effects in and through cyberspace in support of a combatant commander's military objectives, to ensure friendly forces freedom of action in cyberspace while denying adversaries these same freedoms.

There are very clear definitions as to what constitutes war (or an action that is an act of war), and the cyber version is, in essence, no different. Cyber warfare is an action, or series of actions, by a military commander or government-sponsored cyber warriors that furthers his or her objectives, while disallowing an enemy to achieve theirs. Military commanders typically belong to a nation-state or a well-funded, overt and organized insurgency group (as opposed to covert rebels, organized crime rings, etc.). Acting overtly in cyberspace means you are not trying to hide who you are – the cyber version of regular, uniformed forces versus irregular forces.

On Dec. 21, 2014, President Obama stated that the Sony hack was an act of cyber vandalism perpetuated by North Korea, and not an act of war. This statement was criticized by politicians, security experts and other members of the public, but one must look at what constitutes an act of war before a rush to judgment is made. Let’s assume for the sake of this analysis that North Korea did perpetrate the attack (although this is disputed by many). Was the act part of a military maneuver, directed by a commander, with the purpose of denying the enemy (the United States) freedom of action while allowing maneuverability on his end? No. The objective was to embarrass a private-sector firm and degrade or deny computing services. In short, Obama is right – it’s clearly not part of a military operation. It’s on the extreme end of vandalism, but that’s all it is.

The subsequent threats of physical violence to moviegoers if they viewed “The Interview” has never been attributed to those who carried out the cyber attack, and frankly, any moron with Internet access can make the same threats.

Few public examples exist of true, overt cyber warfare. Stories circulate that the U.S., Israel, Russia, China and others have engaged in cyber war at some point, but the accounts either use a looser definition of cyber war, or are anecdotal and are not reported on by a reputable news source.

One of the strongest candidates for a real example of cyber war occurred during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.

georgia ossetia russia and abkhazia en.svg Ssolbergj

Georgia, Ossetia, Russia and Abkhazia (en)" by Ssolbergj (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Russia and Georgia engaged in armed conflict over two breakaway republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia – both located in Georgia. Russia backed the separatists and eventually launched a military campaign. In the days and weeks leading up to Russia’s direct military intervention, hackers originating from within Russia attacked key Georgian information assets. Internet connectivity was down for extended periods of time and official government websites were hacked or completely under the attacker’s control. In addition, internal communications and news outlets were severely disrupted. All of the above would hamper the ability of Georgian military commanders to coordinate defenses during the initial Russian land attack.

Cyber terrorism

No one can agree on the appropriate definition of terrorism, and as such, the definition of cyber terrorism is even murkier. Ron Dick, director of the National Infrastructure Protection Center, defines cyber terrorism as

...a criminal act perpetrated through computers resulting in violence, death and/or destruction, and creating terror for the purpose of coercing a government to change its policies.

Many have argued that cyber terrorism does not exist because “cyberspace” is an abstract construct, whereas terror in a shopping mall is a very real, concrete situation in the physical world that can lead to bodily harm for those present. Cyber terrorism, as a term, has been used (and misused) so many times to describe attacks, it has almost lost the gravitas its real world counterpart maintains.

According to US Code, Title 22, Chapter 38 § 2656f, terrorism is:

…premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.

In order to be a true cyber terrorist attack, the outcome must include violence toward non-combatants and result in large-scale damage or financial harm. Furthermore, it can often be difficult to attribute motivations, goals and affiliations to cyber defilement, just as in the physical world, which makes attribution and labels difficult in the cases of both traditional terrorism and cyber-terrorism.

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