The Exaggerated Fears of Cyber-War
Good article, which basically says our policies are based more on fear than on reality.
So why is there so much concern about “cyber-terrorism”? Answering a question with a question: who frames the debate? Much of the data are gathered by ultra-secretive government agencies—which need to justify their own existence—and cyber-security companies—which derive commercial benefits from popular anxiety. Journalists do not help. Gloomy scenarios and speculations about cyber-Armaggedon draw attention, even if they are relatively short on facts.
Politicians, too, deserve some blame, as they are usually quick to draw parallels between cyber-terrorism and conventional terrorism—often for geopolitical convenience—while glossing over the vast differences that make military metaphors inappropriate. In particular, cyber-terrorism is anonymous, decentralized, and even more detached than ordinary terrorism from physical locations. Cyber-terrorists do not need to hide in caves or failed states; “cyber-squads” typically reside in multiple geographic locations, which tend to be urban and well-connected to the global communications grid. Some might still argue that state sponsorship (or mere toleration) of cyber-terrorism could be treated as casus belli, but we are yet to see a significant instance of cyber-terrorists colluding with governments. All of this makes talk of large-scale retaliation impractical, if not irresponsible, but also understandable if one is trying to attract attention.
Much of the cyber-security problem, then, seems to be exaggerated: the economy is not about to be brought down, data and networks can be secured, and terrorists do not have the upper hand.
Putting these complexities aside and focusing just on states, it is important to bear in mind that the cyber-attacks on Estonia and especially Georgia did little damage, particularly when compared to the physical destruction caused by angry mobs in the former and troops in the latter. One argument about the Georgian case is that cyber-attacks played a strategic role by thwarting Georgia’s ability to communicate with the rest of the world and present its case to the international community. This argument both overestimates the Georgian government’s reliance on the Internet and underestimates how much international PR -- particularly during wartime -- is done by lobbyists and publicity firms based in Washington, Brussels, and London. There is, probably, an argument to be made about the vast psychological effects of cyber-attacks -- particularly those that disrupt ordinary economic life. But there is a line between causing inconvenience and causing human suffering, and cyber-attacks have not crossed it yet.
The real risk isn't cyber-war or cyber-terrorism, it's cyber-crime.
Posted on September 2, 2009 at 7:40 AM • 33 Comments