Metaphors matter in "cyber war" debate
Emily Badger: Metaphors matter in "cyber war" debate
16 Jun 11

Americans generally don’t like to use the word “war” when the country is actually in one (see: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and, increasingly, Pakistan and Yemen). Rhetorical wars, though, politicians and policy-makers love, whether it’s the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, or the amorphous War on Terror.

Add to that list the latest dire confrontation: “cyber war,” a phrase whose use is considerably more widespread than any real understanding of what the idea means. Security expert Bruce Schneier, speaking Thursday at the Computers, Privacy and Freedom conference in Washington, implored privacy advocates to resist such loaded language.

“This is important,” he said, “because metaphors matter.”

“Things work differently in wartime. The war metaphor implies we’re helpless, we need the government to protect us, we should be fearful. ‘War’ changes the debate, ‘war’ changes the solution debate. Things you’d never agree to in peacetime, you agree to in wartime because we’re at war.”

During perceived times of war, we’re more willing to accept government surveillance, intrusions into personal privacy and the erosion of civil liberties and the rights of free expression. During past wartime, Americans have accepted the internment of Japanese citizens and the commandeering of private industry to produce tanks instead of cars, missiles instead of airplanes.

“I’m sure the US military has had conversations with Google, with Amazon, with U.S. [Internet] backbone providers, with the big cyber guns in this country that can be turned into weapons,” Schneier said. “What that means, I don’t know. But in ‘wartime’ that is going to happen.”

The metaphor matters, Schneier adds, in policy debates over an Internet “kill switch.”

“Whether Obama should get that button depends a lot on whether we’re a nation at peace, or a nation at war,” he said.

Politicians are increasingly using the language to describe everything from hacker attacks on corporate offices to digital data breaches at government agencies. Politicians, Schneier noted, have been warning of “cyber armageddon,” “cyber Katrinas” and “cyber Pearl Harbors”.

“Privacy is a luxury in wartime,” Schneier warned. “If we let them win the debate about war, we lose a lot of the debates about our rights.”

And that debate, he cautioned, is directed not just by powerful legislators, but also by the many companies invested in developing the tools to combat “cyber war”.

“There’s a lot of money riding on this war metaphor,” Schneier concluded. “That money is going to push the debate, push the metaphor, and we have to push back.”