The Cyberwar Echo Chamber

Pentagon officials are starting to repeat one another's cyberwar rhetoric. Hello, is this an echo chamber?

Pentagon officials are starting to repeat one another's cyberwar rhetoric. Hello, is this an echo chamber?

On Wednesday, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn III discussed the military's cybersecurity strategy after meetings at NATO and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. "Like air, sea, land and space, we're going to have to treat cyberspace as an arena where we need to defend our networks and to be able to operate freely," he said.

The rhetoric sounds uncannily familiar to what retired CIA and National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden told infosec professionals at the annual security conference Black Hat in July. "Cyber is a domain like land, sea, air, and space," he said.

While Hayden has been reluctant to use the word "war," underscoring his belief that hackering doesn't equate to Pearl Harbor, he's continued to couch the security question in a language of territoriality and aggression. The result is a set of mixed signals: a denial that data infiltration amounts to war in what is, paradoxically, the language of war. According to AFP, at Black Hat, Hayden "called for the creation of Internet versions of rivers, mountains and other geographic features that soldiers use for defensive positions in real world battles."

In a June NPR Intelligence Squared debate on the question, "Has the cyberwar threat been grossly exaggerated?" tech commenter Bruce Schneier argued there needs to be a better language to frame infosec issues.

If we frame this discussion as a war discussion, then what you do when there's a threat of war is you call in the military and you get military solutions. You get lockdown; you get an enemy that needs to be subdued. If you think about these threats in terms of crime, you get police solutions. And as we have this debate, not just on stage, but in the country, the way we frame it, the way we talk about it; the way the headlines read, determine what sort of solutions we want, make us feel better. And so the threat of cyberwar is being grossly exaggerated and I think it's being done for a reason. This is a power grab by government. What Mike McConnell didn't mention is that grossly exaggerating a threat of cyberwar is incredibly profitable.

In that debate, former Navy Vice Admiral McConnell drew parallels between the concept of cyberwar and the Cold War. "We were in a Cold War and we never exchanged nuclear weapons," he said, implying that even though the Cold War didn't involve outright aggression, the omnipotent nuclear threat during the 1940s -- just like the cyberthreats of today -- did not discount it that era as a time of war.

The Pentagon statement on Lynn's speech picked up that reference. Lynn "likened this pillar [of sharing early detections of threats] to the Cold War strategy of shared early warning," the statement notes. "Just as our missile defenses have been linked, so too, our cyber defenses have to be linked as well," the deputy secretary said." In the words of the early modern poet John Milton, "Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from two, it's research."

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