Does anyone else feel like the terms ‘cyber-attack’ and ‘cyber-terrorism’ should always be accompanied by cold-war style red flashing lights? Maybe I’m just watching too much mainstream news. In any case, I argue below that the ‘cyber’ prefix is not only dated and dualist, but imprecise. I suggest ‘data’ as an alternative. This relies on the assumption that we don’t have data, we are data; an attack on our data is therefore, an attack on us.
Cyber-war, terrorism, attack, etc. has been a central topic of conversation among news outlets since North Korean hackers breached Sony’s network and then threatened a physical attack in response to The Interview, a comedy about assassinating Kim Jong-Un[i]. Sony controversially responded by canceling the film’s release. Of significance, U.S. intelligence showed that the physical threat was largely unsubstantiated. And yet, Sony pulled the film. The ‘cyber’ breach, it seems, was dangerous enough. This breach not only exposed information, but was a means by which an enemy gained access to data; a means by which an enemy infiltrated. This was powerful by the very fact that we don’t have data, but are data.
The data breach was not just symbolic, but held material consequences. It spoke, loudly declaring ‘we have access to you.’
And indeed, they do have access to us. The hack was not only a breach of data, but a violation of the people who populate the Sony network, and a reminder to us—all of us data-selves—of our own vulnerability.
We don’t have data, we are data.
And because of this, we are vulnerable. We leave pieces of our data—pieces of our selves—scattered about. We trade, sell, and give data away. Data is the currency for participation in digitally mediated networks; data is required for involvement in the labor force; data is given, used, shared, and aggregated by those who care for and heal our bodies. We live in a mediated world, and cannot move through it without dropping our data as we go.
We don’t have data, we are data.
This is why threats of ‘cyber-terrorism’ and ‘cyber-war,’ are better named ‘data-terrorism’ and ‘data-war.’ The cyber prefix, relying on a dated spatial metaphor, carries with it assumptions of separation between the digital and the real. On the contrary, attacks on the digital are very real. Not just symbolically, and not even just in their consequences, data attacks are real as violations of persons, communities, and potentially nations.
These are not attacks in ‘cyberspace,’ but attacks on networks. And networks are populated by people; networks are populated by us. These forms of aggression therefore threaten not only infrastructure, but populations. A data-breach is an act of unexpected, undesired, violative exposure. A data-attack is not just an aggression, it is a violent aggression, and a clear means of access for those with nefarious intentions. It is a deeply personal tool of war. And it is a tool of war that works, a tool that makes sense, because we are our data.
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[i] North Korea now declines involvement and proposes a joint investigation into the breach. The U.S. authorities maintain that North Korea is the responsible party, and are continuing as though this is the case.