What’s the Deal With Cyberwar?

Mar 1, 2016

Photo credit: Thinkstock

By Jacob Brogan

On Wednesday, March 9, New America’s Cybersecurity Initiative will host its annual Cybersecurity for a New America Conference in Washington, D.C. This year’s conference will focus on securing the future cyberspace. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New American website.

So, what does cyberwar mean anyway?

At core, when we talk about cyberwar, we’re just talking about warfare conducted through computers and other electronic devices, typically over the Internet. As the very ’90s prefix cyber- (when was the last time you heard someone talk about cyberspace with a straight face?) suggests, it’s been part of our cultural and political conversations since the early ’80s. In recent years, however, such conversations have picked up as those in power become more conscious of our reliance on computers—and our consequent vulnerability. Perhaps more importantly, information like that disclosed by Edward Snowden has demonstrated that governments have already made preparations for virtual conflict, whether or not they’re actively engaging in it now. (Click here for a cheat sheet.)

You haven’t really answered my question.

That’s partly because it’s hard to provide a definitive answer. Experts tend to argue about the way that we use the term cyberwar. Some suggest that we should use it to discuss only acts of war that do real damage by purely digital means. In this sense, Cyber World War I would presumably be a war conducted entirely online, one in which there would be no opportunity for “boots on the ground.” Loss of life—if there were any—would presumably come about through attacks on the digital components of critical infrastructure rather than from bullets or bombs.

Since many feel that we’re unlikely to ever find ourselves in such a situation, it might be more practical to speak of a cyberwar as a conflict in which the digital simply plays a central part. But if we take that approach, we might just be giving a new name to the way we already do things.

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