So what is this cyber-thing anyway?

Whether Syrian rebels hacked President Bashar al-Assad’s e-mails themselves or with the help of Western spy agencies or “hactivists”, the release of dozens of revealing messages points to a new era of information warfare (para. 1).

So begins an article in the Globe and Mail last month. The number of referents in this short passage really emphasizes the fact that we still don’t really know how to talk about things that happen in cyberspace. There are rebels, spy agencies, activists, hackers, and nation-states, all apparenty now considered key actors in warfare.

Umm… what frame are we using again? There are guerrila tactics, there’s espionage, protest, digital trespass with probable criminal damage, and covert military operations, all grouped together under the delightfully vague term of ‘information warfare’, which has been used to indicate everything from propaganda to shutting down the power grid.

So what actually happened? Members of Syria’s opposition ‘intercepted’ emails from President Bashar al-Assad’s office. Somehow these emails reveal “evidence of Iranian support for Syria’s crackdown… the spending of thousands of dollars on luxury items by Mr. Assad’s wife and details of his iTunes account and Internet video viewing habits” (para. 4).

There is no need for details about how this ‘interception’ occurred because it is understood that ‘hackers’ can just tap some keys and find out this kind of information through the magic of ‘the Internet’. However later on it is mentioned that “[t]he Syrian opposition say they were given details of the passwords by an internal regime source” (para. 12). It’s easy to ‘hack’ an email account when you’re given the password.

In this discussion, Wikileaks is mentioned in the same breath as Chinese censorship, and reference is made to suspected Chinese ‘hackers’ who used their coding know-how to… create a fake Facebook profile for NATO supreme commander Admiral James Stavridis, hoping to fool collegues into ‘friending’ and sharing top secret intel with them. Over Facebook.

Communications systems have long been a target in warfare, and misinformation and propaganda, or ‘strategic communication’ as they are increasingly called, are staples of conflicts. However the weaponizing of information that we see in this article is I think an indicator of something else. For some reason, because these things are occurring online, they somehow become completely new. We forget what it is we are talking about when things happen in cyberspace. So what should clearly be a case of espionage, with the resulting information being used as propaganda, is actually an instance of ‘hacktivism’ and ‘cyber warfare’, a “tool that could become increasingly popular” (para. 14), as if there is no historical precedent. In addition, so poor is the general understanding of how the machines which we spend so much of our lives hooked up to actually, technically, work, that we fall back on the use of buzzwords which change their meaning daily, and are almost universally inaccurate in describing the situations to which they are applied.

For some reason, the prefix ‘cyber’ is attached to all things that occur online, with little attention is given to the appended part of the term in arriving at a definition and appropriate usage. Cyber-terrorism, cyber-warfare, cyber-crime, cyber-espionage… they all seem to be used indiscriminately, despite the fact that we have fairly static definitions for what counts as terrorism, warfare, crime, and espionage, hammered out for jurisdictional certainty if nothing else. And yet, when they occur online, all this goes out the window. Never mind the fact that the definition of ‘cyber’ is completely amorphous, given the fact that it is usually assumed to refer to the Internet, which is itself a network of networks, and that there are many networks that are not connected to the Internet.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the confusion. Twenty years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end to the last clear national threat frame. It’s over a decade since the beginning of the amorphous ‘war on terror’ into which anyone and anything can be subsumed. Add to this ever-expanding threat frame a history of technophobia that can be traced from War of the Worlds through to War Games, The Matrix, and Die Hard 4.0, and you have a situation where the  definition of cyber-anything can change as frequently as is convenient for the powers that be.