President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith of Microsoft in April told the RSA cybersecurity conference about attacks that don't involve tanks and warplanes, but bytes and bots. And they are aimed at our energy grids, our infrastructure, and even our private financial information.
We've increasingly seen reports of cyber incursions, attributed to nation-states, into critical infrastructure and financial systems. We've seen further attempts to affect countries' internal political institutions. Nations are reportedly stockpiling software and network vulnerabilities, to use for espionage or in the event of an internet-enabled conflict.
Even if some claims of cyberwar are overblown — and notions of a looming "cyber-geddon" almost certainly are — the rapid adoption of new technologies as a mechanism of statecraft create ambiguity and give rise to risks that we need to understand. The first step is to be clear about what cyberwar may look like and what governments, institutions, companies and citizens can do about it.
What is 'cyberwar'?
The reason the idea of cyberwar has led to such alarm is that it's new — and ambiguous. As with many new technologies, it leaves us without norms and accepted definitions that clarify intentions, actions and consequences. There is even significant controversy among leading nations regarding whether the law of armed conflict should be applied to activities on the internet.
Muddying the waters further, espionage, crime, and hactivism have been lumped together, in a way that they are almost never combined in the physical world. All are sometimes defined as cyber war either out of semantic lassitude or as a way to magnify the supposed threat.
In order to take the threat of cyber war seriously, we should recognize that not all detrimental activity online should be called "cyberwar" just as not all actions between states are defined as "war." A reasonable definition must take into account specific forms of aggression and intended results — "cyberwar" is not crime, it is not espionage, it is not propaganda and it is not terrorism.