While a variety of "cyber weapons" are almost certain to become ubiquitous, the term "cyberwar" grossly overstates the current role of information technology in international disputes and is impairing responses to real threats, according to two British researchers.
Not only are claims that cyberwar exists today untrue, it is "unlikely that there will ever be a true cyberwar", Peter Sommer, a computer scientist from the London School of Economics and Ian Brown, of Oxford University's Internet Institute argue in a hefty contribution [pdf] to the OECD's project Future Global Shocks.
The pair appear to back up the sentiments of Howard Schmidt, Obama's IT security czar, that "there is no cyberwar" and believe its emergence in political and military discourse has been made possible by a failure to agree on terminology to describe security incidents.
"Cyberespionage is not a "few keystrokes away from cyberwar", it is one technical method of spying. A true cyberwar is an event with the characteristics of conventional war but fought exclusively in cyberspace," the authors argue.
The researchers report that "true cyberwar" is unlikely because designers of new weapons must identify new holes in critical computer systems, the effect of attacks are unpredictable and may result in "in unwanted damage to perpetrators and their allies".
"More importantly, there is no strategic reason why any aggressor would limit themselves to only one class of weaponry."
The major problem with the preoccupation with cyberwar is that it justified investments in the wrong capabilities at the expense of more likely causes of catastrophe, such as accidents.
Noting the US government's huge investments in military-centred cyberwarfare capabilities, they argue that much of a nation's critical infrastructure is run by a private sector whose responsibility lies with shareholders, not the public.
And while some governments can issue an emergency decree, say, over an ISP in the event of disaster, "one has to question how easy it would be to exercise."
"Who from the body of civil servants and military personnel would be able to ?run an electricity supply, an Internet service facility, a modern supermarket, and so on?"