Future Tense

Your Cyberwar Cheat Sheet

Who are the key players? What are the big debates? And what’s WarGames got to do with it?

Richard Clarke: A national security expert who’s advised multiple presidential administrations on cybersecurity, Clarke has issued vocal warnings against the dangers of cyberterrorism and penned a book about cyberwar.

Eviatar Matania: Matania helps direct Israel’s approach to cyberdefense as the head of its National Cyber Bureau.

John McAfee: McAfee, who launched one of the first cybersecurity firms in 1987, has attempted to insert himself into various political cyberconflicts.

Michael S. Rogers: Rogers, who directs the National Security Agency, coordinates many of the cyberoperations of the various military branches in his role as commander of the U.S. Cyber Command.

Edward Snowden: Snowden, a former NSA contractor, released a massive cache of documents taken from his employer that included information about U.S. cyberwarfare policies and practices.

Willis Ware: For decades, digital pioneer Ware warned anyone who would listen about computer vulnerabilities.

Lu Wei: Director of the Chinese government’s cybersecurity initiatives, Lu has met with Obama administration officials to discuss issues of cyberconflict.

Terminological uncertainty: It can be difficult to definitively determine what does and does not count as an act of cyberwarfare. Will we know what we’re experiencing when and if it actually arrives?

Uncontrollable spread: Once unleashed, cyberweapons can be difficult to control. Even highly targeted ones like the Stuxnet worm sometimes spread without clear reason. Can we rein in the forces that we’re deploying?

Vulnerable superpowers: Because the countries best equipped to develop cyberweapons are also the most reliant on computerized systems, they may also be the most vulnerable to cyberattacks. Are nations that embrace offensive cyberwarfare merely creating the conditions of their own undoing?

Civil liberties: Edward Snowden’s leaked documents demonstrate that some cyberwarfare impinges directly on the lives of ordinary civilians. Can we protect the privacy and safety of individuals while pursuing these technologies?

Endless struggle: As militaries and governments acquire more and more data about their antagonists, it becomes increasingly difficult to definitively end a conflict. Will tomorrow’s battles be interminable?

Fuzzy targeting: In cyberwar, it can be difficult to distinguish between civilian and military targets. In many cases the former may be the easiest to attack, a problem only amplified by the lack of clear international treaties. Can we regulate how and when cyberwar technologies are deployed?

Cyber War Will Not Take Place, by Thomas Rid: Arguing that the term cyberwar mostly functions as a metaphor, Rid challenges the notion that our future battles will be fought entirely online while still thoroughly exploring the role that computers play in political struggles today.

Dark Territory, by Fred Kaplan: Focusing primarily on U.S. engagement in digital conflict, Slate’s Kaplan traces the history of cyberwar, interviewing original participants and reviewing source materials.

Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by dotshock/Shutterstock, Footage Island.

Inside the Sony Hack,” by Amanda Hess: When North Korea hacked Sony in November 2014, countless employees and entertainment professionals were swept up in the resulting maelstrom. Drawing on interviews with dozens of those who were affected, Hess explores the grayest area of cyberwar: government-sponsored attacks against private entities.

Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture, by Stephanie Ricker Schulte: This academic study examines the ways we represent national security threats and helps explain how culture influences policy decisions and otherwise shapes our understanding of digital conflict.

Liberty and Security in a Changing World”: In the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures, President Obama commissioned a review of intelligence collection technologies and strategies. Arguing that personal privacy is an important component of collective security, the resulting report outlined 46 policy proposals, many of which were subsequently incorporated into law.

Presidential Policy Directive 20: Among the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, this 18-page directive produced by the Obama administration in 2012 outlines the U.S. government’s approach to cyberwarfare.  

The Americans, “Arapanet”: In this second season episode of the acclaimed series, a deep cover Russian operative attempts to gain access to Internet precursor ARPANET.

Ghost Fleet, by P.W. Singer and August Cole: This novel, from security experts Singer and Cole, imagines how global war will play out in a digital age.

The Interview, directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen: This film about a fictional attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un inspired a real North Korean cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment.

I Saw a Man, by Owen Sheers: Sheers’ novel traces the human weight of conflicts that increasingly play out on a largely virtual terrain.

WarGames, directed by John Badham: With its plot about a teenager who accidentally hacks into the U.S. nuclear arsenal and almost initiates World War III, this film influenced the Reagan administration’s policy decisions.

Cyber: A prefix typically applied to computerized systems and operations. What it means when applied to warfare is a subject of hot debate.

Distributed Denial of Service: Attempts to attack a computer system by overwhelming it with requests from multiple sources, causing it to shut down. Colloquially known as a DDoS attack.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Logic Bomb: Computer code designed to damage a system by deleting files, overwriting other code, or otherwise maliciously disrupting operations.

Significant consequences: A term that crops up in U.S. government documents about cyberwarfare referring to loss of life.

Worm: Self-replicating malware designed to spread through or between computer networks.

This article is part of the cyberwar installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through June 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. To get the latest from Futurography in your inbox, sign up for the weekly Future Tense newsletter.