The first step to formulating an organized response is to define cyberwar correctly, said Robert Rodriguez, a former Secret Service special agent and founder of the Security Innovation Network. Calling what's gone on in recent years a "cyberwar" only complicates things, he said.
"War connotes huge conflict at a grand level between nations and societies," Rodriguez said.
It also involves the use of military force to essentially destroy another nation's capabilities and will to resist, according to James Lews, director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The cyber equivalent of such a conflict would involve a nation using cyber means to attain political ends in another country, said Lewis, who led a commission that developed a set of cybersecurity recommendations for President Obama last year.
"When you look at the number of systems that have been Trojaned or compromised, you could say our cyberbattlefield has been prepped and can be used against us," admits Jerry Dixon, former director of the National Cyber Security Division at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
"However, the adversary has to decide if the intelligence they're getting from our systems and networks is more valuable than attacking them to take them offline," he said. "If they attack and take them offline, they will lose insight into what we're doing."
Making such distinctions is crucial from a strategic response standpoint. "Pronouncements that we are in a cyberwar or face cyberterror conflate problems and make effective response more difficult," Lewis said.
So if the attacks of recent years aren't warfare, what are they?
Spies or Criminals?
A lot of what's going on is happening on two levels: cyberespionage and cybercrime on a massive -- and growing -- scale. They aren't new, said Patricia Titus, the former chief information security officer at the Transportation Security Administration who now holds a similar post at Unisys Corp. But the attacks on Google and other companies refocused attention on the scope of the problem, she said.
Many of the recent attacks tended to originate from China, though countries such as Russia and India are also suspect. Specific companies and government organizations are usually targeted through the use of social engineering tricks, advanced reconnaissance and sophisticated malware tools that can quietly penetrate networks and steal data. What's not always clear is whether this kind of economic and military espionage is state-sponsored or carried out by hactivists and opportunists.
Other attacks, especially those from Eastern Europe, aim to steal money from banks, businesses, educational institutions and individuals. Most recently, cyberattacks have targeted small and midsize businesses, some of which have been forced out of business or into bankruptcy.
A Nexus of Bad Guys
Increasingly, there appears to be a nexus between the groups committing cybertheft and those doing cyberespionage, said Amit Yoran, former director of the National Cyber Security Division of the DHS and current CEO of NetWitness Corp. Many of the botnets, servers, malware tools and techniques now used in cybercrime are also being used for espionage. "Where traditionally a [state-run] intelligence service would execute their own operations, now they have ties with organized crime," he said.