Cyber Peace

The online war that isn't


Despite congressional scaremongering about the looming threat of cyber war—the prospect that online attacks will wreak devastation on par with traditional warfare—the calamity may never actually happen.

At least not according to Thomas Rid, a researcher in the Department of War Studies at King's College London. In a Journal of Strategic Studies paper published online in October, Rid writes that no online attack to date has constituted a war, which he defines as "a potentially lethal, instrumental, and political act of force conducted through malicious code." Furthermore, he says, it's "highly unlikely that cyber war will occur in the future."

Many members of Congress nevertheless indulge in cyber doomsday rhetoric when it suits their purposes. In 2010 Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) claimed, "We are at war, we are being attacked, and we are being hacked." At a Senate hearing the same year, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) compared "cyber weapons" to weapons of mass destruction.

Rid notes that oft-cited examples of cyber war—such as attacks on Estonian government and bank websites in 2007 and on government websites in the nation of Georgia in 2008—were not really war at all, since they were not violent, instrumental, and political. So far, he says, even politically motivated online attacks have been "merely sophisticated versions of three activities that are as old as warfare itself: subversion, espionage, and sabotage."