Let’s Declare Cyberwar!

As a child, I remember playing “war” with my friends. Epic battles played out in our backyards with imaginary casualties lying at the feet of victorious warriors in paper hats. Unfortunately, many years later not much has changed in the minds of many otherwise reasoned thinkers.

A recent article by David Frum in “The Week”  exemplifies this phenomena. In his article “Wikileaks is an Act of Cyber War,” Frum argues that Wikileaks is the cyber equivalent of a roadside bomb as compared to the cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, which he characterizes as an F-35 attack.

But are Wikileaks antics a form of cyber war as Frum and others suggest? The short answer is no.

Best described as a new form of warfare, a cyber-war must be distinguished from cyber-espionage, cyber-crime and other variants of online conflict. While the popular media will continue to use the term to describe anything that will help sell ad space, the term describes a conflict between states as described in the formal laws of war.

The problem today is that legal scholars have not fully figured out how to define a cyber-war since the modern rules of armed conflict were crafted prior to the advent of the Internet.

A short answer to what is a cyber-war is to look at whether the online actions resulted in death or destruction and can it be attributed to another state. There are no easy answers to these seemingly simple questions and other factors need to be addressed as well before declaring a cyber-conflict a “war.” But for purposes of the discussion about pro or anti Wikileaks hackers waging distributed denial of service attacks against credit card companies and the like, it is perhaps better to think in analogous terms. The current demonstrations in the U.K. by student protesters upset over increases in tuition rates seem a more apt comparison. While some students may believe that they are at war with the British government, theirs is a protest, plain and simple.

In the case of Wikileaks, what we are now seeing is a characterization of the cyber event as something defined by the beholder, thereby justifying retaliation. Calling something a war invokes a certain nationalistic fervor and a call to action. Unfortunately, this means spending money (lots of it) to protect us from enemies, real or imagined, forgoing personal freedoms for the common good (remember the Patriot Act?) and branding dissenters from the prevailing ideology as terrorists. It’s not inconceivable that donations to the Wikileaks defense fund could be considered financing a terrorist organization in the not so distant future.

Cyber-wars will befall us all but be patient and be warned. A real cyber-war is not something we will find entertaining on the evening news. Just as important, reckless use of the cyberwar moniker opens the floodgate of state-sponsored repression that makes the whining about Wikileaks look like child’s play.

About John Richardson

John Richardson is the CEO of JMR Portfolio Intelligence, a Washington DC based human rights consultancy.
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