Cyber what? (part 2 of 2)

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

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There are no known examples of true cyber terrorism. It certainly could happen – it just hasn’t happened yet. 

Cyber vandalism

There is not an “official” US government definition of cyber vandalism, and definitions elsewhere are sparse. To paraphrase Justice Stewart, it’s not easy to describe, but you will know it when you see it.

The definition of “vandalism” from Merriam-Webster is “willful or malicious destruction or defacement of public or private property.”

Cyber vandals usually perpetrate an attack for personal enjoyment or to increase their stature within a group, club or organization. They also act very overtly, wishing to leave a calling card so the victim and others know exactly who did it – think of wayward subway taggers, and the concept is about the same. Some common methods are website defacement, denial-of-service attacks, forced system outages and data destruction.

Examples are numerous:

  • Anonymous DDoS attacks of various targets in 2011-2012
  • Lizard Squad DDoS attacks and website defacements in 2014
  • For now, the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, unless attribution can be made to a military operation under the auspices of a nation-state, which is unlikely.

Cyber espionage

Much of what the public, politicians or security vendors attribute to “cyber terrorism” or “cyber war” is actually cyber espionage, a real and quantifiable type of cyber attack that offers plenty of legitimate examples. An eloquent definition comes from James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence:

…intrusions into networks to access sensitive diplomatic, military, or economic

There have been several high-profile cases in which hackers, working for or sanctioned by the Chinese government, infiltrated US companies, including Google and The New York Times, with the intention of stealing corporate secrets from companies that operate in sectors in which China lags behind. These are examples of corporate or economic espionage, and there are many more players – not just China.

Cyber spies also work in a manner similar to the methods used by moles and snoops since the times of ancient royal courts; they are employed by government agencies to further the political goals of those organizations. Many examples exist, from propaganda campaigns to malware that has been specifically targeted against an adversary’s computing equipment.


  • The Flame virus, a very sophisticated malware package that records through a PC’s microphones, takes screenshots, eavesdrops on Skype conversations, and sniffs network traffic. Iran and other Middle East countries were targeted until the malware was discovered and made public. The United States is suspected as the perpetrator.
  • The Snowden documents revealed many eavesdropping and espionage programs perpetrated against both US citizens and adversaries abroad by the NSA. The programs, too numerous to name here, are broad and use a wide variety of methods and technologies.


The capabilities and scope of cyber attacks are just now starting to become understood by the public at large – in many cases, quite some time after an attack has taken place. Regardless of the sector in which you are responsible for security, whether you work at a military installation or a private-sector firm, a common language and lexicon must be established so we can effectively communicate security issues with each other and with law enforcement, without the anxiety, uncertainty and doubt that is perpetuated by politicians and security vendors.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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