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Rejecting the inflationary use of the term “war” – which apart from anything else plays down the horrors of an actual war – Eneken Tikk and Mika Kerttunen advocate a definition of war that clearly follows Clausewitz. Neither current nor anticipated future cyber activities are subsumed by this concept, because – then as now, and most likely in the future – such activities are not capable of causing substantial physical damage. The fact that militaries around the world are developing and expanding their capacities to wage war via electronic means does not contradict this observation. Rather it is a logical consequence of increasing digitalization and interconnectedness. Nevertheless – and this is the authors’ central argument – this issue is about more than just terminology. As cyberspace becomes a zone of conflict, talk of war makes us blind to actual risky developments. Because of their “below-the-threshold” character, cyber operations of all kinds are attractive as a standard means of projecting power – especially to smaller states and new cyberpowers. This promises to bring destabilization, the gradual debasement of the principles of international law, and escalatory automatisms leading to the risk of a conventional kinetic war.

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For almost two decades, experts and defense establishments the world over have been predicting that cyber war is coming. But is it? This article argues in three steps that cyber war has never happened in the past, that cyber war does not take place in the present, and that it is unlikely that cyber war will occur in the future. It first outlines what would constitute cyber war: a potentially lethal, instrumental, and political act of force conducted through malicious code. The second part shows what cyber war is not, case-by-case. Not one single cyber offense on record constitutes an act of war on its own. The final part offers a more nuanced terminology to come to terms with cyber attacks. All politically motivated cyber attacks are merely sophisticated versions of three activities that are as old as warfare itself: sabotage, espionage, and subversion.
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