Cyber war is possibly the most dangerous buzzword of the Internet era. The fear-inducing rhetoric surrounding it is being used to justify major changes in the way the internet is organised, governed, and constructed. And in Cyber War Will Not Take Place, Thomas Rid convincingly argues that cyber war is not a compelling threat. Rid is one of the leading cyber war sceptics in Europe, and although he doesn’t argue that war won’t extend into cyberspace, he says that cyberspace’s role in war is more limited than doomsayers want us to believe. His argument against cyber war is lucid and methodical. He divides “offensive and violent political acts” in cyberspace into: sabotage, espionage, and subversion. These categories are larger than cyberspace, of course, but Rid spends considerable time analysing their strengths and limitations within cyberspace. The details are complicated, but his end conclusion is that many of these types of attacks cannot be defined as acts of war, and any future war won’t involve many of these types of attacks.
None of this is meant to imply that cyberspace is safe. Threats of all sorts fill cyberspace, but not threats of war. As such, the policies to defend against them are different. While hackers and criminal threats get all the headlines, more worrisome are the threats from governments seeking to consolidate their power. I have long argued that controlling the internet has become critical for totalitarian states, and their four broad tools of surveillance, censorship, propaganda and use control have legitimate commercial applications, and are also employed by democracies.
A lot of the problem here is of definition. There isn’t broad agreement as to what constitutes cyber war, and this confusion plays into the hands of those hyping its threat. If everything from Chinese espionage to Russian criminal extortion to activist disruption falls under the cyber war umbrella, then it only makes sense to put more of the internet under government – and thus military – control. Rid’s book is a compelling counter-argument to this approach.
Rid’s final chapter is an essay unto itself, and lays out his vision as to how we should deal with threats in cyberspace. For policymakers who won’t sit through an entire book, this is the chapter I would urge them to read. Arms races are dangerous and destabilising, and we’re in the early years of a cyber war arms race that’s being fuelled by fear and ignorance. This book is a cogent counterpoint to the doomsayers and the profiteers, and should be required reading for anyone concerned about security in cyberspace.