• United States




Cyber what? (part 2 of 2)

Mar 30, 20158 mins

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.

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.

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.

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.


Tony Martin-Vegue is a 20-year technology industry veteran who started out as a Windows 3.1 phone support technician and worked his way up by running network cabling through ceilings, winning (and losing) in the late-1990s – early 2000s dot-com bubble and leading network operations teams. In the more recent past, Tony has worked in the financial services sector helping firms establish frameworks for enterprise risk assessments, developed advanced threat modeling tools, educated on risk analysis techniques and consulted on security for large-scale IT projects. Tony currently works at a large global retailer leading their cyber-crime program by researching emerging threats, assessing risk and fighting fraud.

Tony holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Economics from the University of San Francisco and holds many certifications including CISSP, CISM and CEH.

Tony lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, is a father of two and enjoys swimming and biking in his free time.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Tony Martin-Vegue and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.