Press might have over-egged the "cyber war" pudding

After years of using the term “cyber war” to refer to hackers from foreign countries hacking businesses in other lands, the press is starting to admit it has mis-used the phrase.

The way that the turn “cyberwar” has been reported has been by officials and computer insecurity companies who have been telling the world+dog that that armies of hackers are stealing online secrets and using the Internet to attack infrastructure such as power grids.

However, this week some security analysts said that “cyberwarfare” is such a broadly used term that it might be hurting efforts by countries to agree how to cooperate on Internet security.

Last month the United Nations rejected a Russian proposal for a new treaty on cybercrime.

Scott Charney, vice president of Microsoft  Trustworthy Computing Group, told the Worldwide Cybersecurity Summit that there’s confusion in these treaty negotiations because of lack of clarity about which problems they’re trying to solve.

Cyberwar is a catchall phrase: It’s often used to refer to everything from purely financial crimes to computer attacks that could kill people by blowing up an oil pipeline.

BT chief security technology officer and an influential security blogger Bruce Schneier pointed out that attacks last summer that knocked out service to government Web sites in the United States and South Korea were also widely called acts of cyberwar, even though they were essentially harmless.

The White House’s cybersecurity coordinator, Howard Schmidt, has called “cyberwar” an inaccurate metaphor, given that many computer attacks are criminal acts aimed at stealing money.

This shifts something which should be a security issue into one of national importance that only involves governments.

Charney said cyber threats should be better differentiated. He proposes four categories: conventional computer crimes, military espionage, economic espionage and cyberwarfare. That approach, he argues, would make it easier to craft defenses and to discuss international solutions to each problem.

However Charney said that the nature of the internet makes it possible that “a nation-state might well find itself ‘at war’ with a single individual.” As a result, he wrote, new rules for such combat have to be considered.