Cyberwar term brings risks

by Chris Zappone

A thoughtful comment by British cybersecurity expert Ian Wallace about the dangers of misuse of the ‘cybersecurity’ term and the risk of relegating cyberdefense and competition to the military. To the point, he writes:

 Experience suggest that most instances where the term ‘cyberwar’ is applied, a better description would be ‘commercial espionage’, ‘sabotage’, ‘subversion’ or just ‘cyber crime’. (on the Lowy Interpreter)

He gives several good reasons highlighting the risks of militarization of cyberspace, (moral hazard with the public, cynicism and complacency, and discouraging longer-lasting, more sustainable non-military approaches) but the final reason is the most serious:

“As US academic Barry Posen pointed out in his influential 1984 book The Sources of Military Doctrine, military organisations, especially when they are not subject to close civilian oversight, will often adopt an offensive doctrine as a way of reducing uncertainty in complex environments.”

Cyber threats don’t fit “easily into the security framework that has evolved in the past couple of centuries in modern democratic states like Australia and the US” and governments are struggling to fill the gap.

My hunch – and that’s an honest word most of these experts should be using – is that governments will continue to struggle to fill the gap, as long as they rely on a bordered view of the world – that is a world in which one place is clearly delineated from another.

For legal and military matters, thinking in terms of borders makes sense. But the modern militaries and police evolved in a world of nation states, in which the border really counted.

Today hard borders matter less in terms of business, politics, awareness, activism, etc. This reality will come as a shock to a country like Australia that relies on borders for a sense of protection and strategic isolation. This border-lite world permits flocks and swarms of likeminded people, of political actors who aren’t beholden to one particular set of geographies.  And countries that what to defend themselves must devise new ways of approaching their defense from cyber malefactors – one that is as decentralized and amorphous as the intruder can be.


Which means that countries like the US and Australia that want to defend themselves, must imagine ways to do that account for the fluid and porous nature of the wired world. These reasons above are also the incentive for some states to push hard to drive up their online borders- as a way of staying cohesive.