An interesting study has just been released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development arguing that the potential risk for a cyber war is over-hyped. This study, which was reported by theBBC is evidently the first in a series of reports that look at incidents that could cause global disruption.

This jumped out to me as a story, as I currently live in a region where tensions run high in some countries, and and indeed the recent Tunisia up-rising has, by some, been referenced as the Middle East’s first cyber war.

To summarise the BBC article, the consensus is that, to date, the terminology that has been used with regards to the issues of internet security was incorrect, and that in almost all cases, the use of the term “cyber war” to reference an attack is not correct. So whether looking at the hobbyist DDoS attacks recently in protest to WikiLeaks – which we mentioned in an earlier – or the above mention of the Tunisia incident (which involved the Anonymous activist group; the same engaged during the WikiLeaks incident), I would argue that both are an over-hyped use of the term. Rather the online incidents have been an extended form of protest – people take the streets but they also now take to the net – which results in an amplification of media coverage and opinion.

This certainly has, in this instance, played an important part in the civil uprising – a catalyst but neither the cause nor the weapon.

The term cyber-war is used so frequently that, in essence, it has lost its meaning.

In the words of Professor Peter Sommer, visiting professor at the London School of Economics, who co-wrote the report with Dr Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute:

“We don’t help ourselves by using ‘cyber war’ to describe espionage or hacktivist blockading or defacing of websites, as recently seen in reaction to WikiLeaks.

“Nor is it helpful to group trivially avoidable incidents like routine viruses and frauds with determined attempts to disrupt critical national infrastructure.”

The report goes on to conclude that, when considering the use of the net in conflict between nation states that:

“It is unlikely that there will ever be a true cyber war… most likely because no aggressor would stick to one class of weaponry. Existing defences and the unpredictable effects of such an attack could limit its effectiveness.”

Personally, I think that, to date, one of the incidents – that is at least public – that could perhaps be described as a use of cyber attack as a weapon for war – was the reported Russian attackson Estonia in 2007. Again, this wasn’t true “war” but the use of the net as a platform to destabilise – it was used as a weapon, rather than as the battleground for warfare. Building on this argument of incorrect terminology to describe the Tunisian incidents, Martin Lynch made a great point about the use of social mediain the Tunisia uprising in arguing that it was far too simplistic to reference the uprising in Tunisia as a “Twitter Revolution”.

He argues that the role of media – as a collective whole, to which Twitter is a media source/amplifier of media content – would be a far more credible argument. The role of Al Jazeera for example couldn’t be ignored – it was their content and constant coverage of the event (unlike some of the other global news stations) that helped give focus to this being more than just Tunisia – but an Arabic-wide revolution.

In Lynch’s words:

“For now, I would just argue that it would be more productive to focus more broadly on the evolution of the Arab media over the last decade, in which new media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, forums and blogs work together with satellite television stations such as al-Jazeera to collectively transform the Arab information environment and shatter the ability of authoritarian regimes to control the flow of information, images, ideas and opinions.”

Technology, and the impact it is having on media in the Arab world is certainly proving to be a disruptive force. The internet brings people together; it helps to take the local issue and turn it global. The internet is hard to police and censor and as such, voices and opinions are being shared more freely. Content from one country can now easily be shared with another region or even the rest of the world. The internet and its applications evolve and develop faster than governments can keep up. Tunisia, and even the riots inAlgeriaand further back to the political protests in Iran were not caused by the internet/social media, but they were certainly amplified.

Indeed the implications of Tunisia, may well yet be far more reaching that just within the country. Lynch concludes this far better than I could, so I’ll give him the final words on this post:

“Tunisia became a common focal point for the Arab political debate and identity.

“Al-Jazeera’s role may not fit the current passion for the internet, but overlooking it will lead to some serious misunderstandings of how the media works in today’s Arab world and how the Tunisian events might matter outside of that country over the longer term.”